What copyright means for cartoonists

Many people buying cartoons do not know how copyright law works, and in the digital age, more that ever, it is important for cartoonists to let clients know where they stand.

Copyright can seem complex but it is actually fairly straightforward. When selling a cartoon for publication, copyright law means that as long as you have signed no agreement to the contrary, you always retain copyright in your material.

Typically, a cartoonist will sell exclusive first rights for an image within a defined area (ie the UK) or for a defined purpose (website publication and archiving) to the publisher.

If, however, you receive a communication from a publisher requiring all rights in return for payment and the publication of your cartoon, you must write back to clarify your terms. Refusal to communicate isn’t wise because silence may legally be regarded as agreement to the publishers terms. A reply and a statement of your rights allows the cartoonist to retain rights.

In recent years, some unscrupulous publishers have issued contracts which acknowledge that you own your copyright, but go on to demand an all-encompassing range of licensed rights, for little or no extra payment. Bloghorn believes this is like them saying “We were asking for the freehold to your house for the price of a month’s rent, but now we just want a 999-year lease.”

Again, it is wise to respond to such contracts, in writing to clarify which rights the publisher actually wants and needs, immediately. Discuss how much will be paid for anything more than first use in the publication that commissioned you (that is, if it’s in the UK, First British Serial Rights). It is wise to leave open the opportunity to renegotiate should further licences be required.

It is clearly accepted by the Copyright Act that freelance cartoonists and illustrators who are paid by the day own their pictures.

In summary, communication is the key. Cartoonists must let clients know what rights they are buying, and the artist should strive to retain ownership of the drawings.

Bloghorn would like to hear your stories about looking after business in the comments or here.


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