Should I license my images?
Only if you really understand licensing and your client really understands licensing.
If the licensing opportunity is appropriate, meaning that it elevates your brand to the right audience, the compensation is agreeable, and you have a clear written contract with an experienced and reputable licensee, then it can be very lucrative.
Learn from my tribulations. Two out of the three times that I have licensed my images have been complete disasters because I had two ignorant clients. They had an attitude of entitlement that I believe came from their misguided notion that they where doing me a great favor by helping me gain “exposure.” In fact, I did them a great favor, as friends of friends, by mistakenly offering below market rates. And that is where it went to hell despite my solid contract.
The first and the last wine label I designed included an image of one of my contemporary still life paintings. I crafted a very clear licensing agreement from the most current samples in the annual edition of the “Graphic Design Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines“, an excellent resource. I discussed the fact that I reserve my rights to any and all reproduction of my images and my clients nodded enthusiastically. Because they both nodded and each signed the contract, I thought we had communicated.
The scope of this limited “single use” license could not have been made any clearer. The license allowed reproduction of a single image on x number of wine labels to be printed in a given year, only on wine labels applied only to wine bottles, and distributed within a specified geographic region. The contract further stated that other uses where excluded, including, but not limited to, electronic reproduction. And because the image is my property that is my prerogative.
The winemaker and his wife actually purchased the original oil painting, again with a clear second notice that I reserved all rights to reproduction. By owning the original oil painting they do not somehow own the rights to reproduce it. Those rights are my sole intellectual property. For example, if you purchased the original transcripts of Harry Potter, you don’t get to make copies and distribute them. Why? You don’t own the rights, JK Rowling does. That’s why she is the only one who can sell the movie rights to Warner Brothers.
Anyway, the wine was a hit! And this was a new brand that we made up at the kitchen table. That’s saying something in the over saturated market of wine. But now my clients wanted to broaden the scope of the licensing agreement and place the image on soaps and tea shirts. That would be fine, if the money was right and it elevated my emerging brand. But I don’t believe that anything that goes in the dishwasher or the laundry is going to elevate my fine art brand.
When I didn’t immediately agree to sell all of my rights the winemaker became furious. And he actually threatened to squash my emerging reputation in the close-knit wine community.
It doesn’t end there. I’ll be in small claims court this Friday enforcing the second judgment I’ve won against the other wine label client for breach of contract, specifically copyright infringement.
Again, licensing can be a very lucrative and a very nice passive form of income. But that’s only if you have a solid agreement, mutual respect, and experience. Most clients and most artists do not understand licensing.
If you ever want to build your brand and build your wealth you must understand your intellectual property rights. Start with the US Copyright Office website. If you create the image you own the copyright but if you don’t register it with the Library of Congress the damages that you can recover will be limited.
I’ve decided since my very first wine label helped move that much wine, the next wine label that I design will be for my wine.