By Gamal Hennessy
This is a modified excerpt from a book I’m working on called Independent Comic Book Publishing. It’s designed to walk you through the basics of artist collaboration agreements. The post is geared towards independent comic book creators, but the information is also applicable to freelance creatives and independent entertainers of all types. While this can’t be used as legal advice, I hope you’ll find it helpful.
Many historical comic book contracts were between artists and publishers. A company like Marvel would hire the artist or writer to create stories for their characters on a work for hire basis. Today, the rise of technology and markets to support independent comic book publishing has increased the need for contracts between comic book creators. Unfortunately, I’ve met too many creative teams that decided to make a comic together without a contract.
What many comic book creators don't realize is that this type of contract is just as important as the one between the artists and the publisher. Without a well-defined artist collaboration agreement, an otherwise successful partnership can lead to misunderstandings, conflict and disputes down the road that can be just as costly as any lawsuit with a publisher.
When Do You Need an Artist Collaboration Agreement?
Certain creative endeavors like comics, movies, films and theater are normally created through a collective effort. While there are some comic book creators who do everything on their own, most projects are created by the continuing collaboration between the members of the group. In the same way that a music band combines the talent of each musician to make music, a creative team comes together to make a comic book (even if they only come together in a cloud server that they upload the work to).
You need an artist collaboration agreement when members of the creative team are going to own a piece of the book. Just like a band or a movie crew; each member of the team should know what he or she is getting out of any deal that involves the property they work on. This might not be significant when you are selling a couple hundred books a year on your website and losing money on the cost of production. This becomes a huge issue when a property is picked up for a film, TV show, video game or merchandise deal. It helps to have all the issues squared away before Hollywood starts calling. If you wait too long, anger, resentment and actual litigation could tear the team apart just when things start to take off. You need a signed artist collaboration agreement with each member of the creative team before you start production on the book.
What is an Artist Collaboration Agreement?
An artist collaboration agreement defines the rights and responsibilities between two or more parties who plan to share in the ownership of the overall intellectual property. An artist collaboration agreement is different from a work-for-hire agreement (where one party pays another party to work on an intellectual property project for money and not ownership), or a license agreement (where one party gives another party the right to use some aspect of the intellectual property in exchange for payment).
While an artist collaboration agreement will share some of the same foundation and housekeeping terms found in other comic book contracts (See my post on A Simple Guide to Creative Contracts), there are several basic and business terms unique to this type of agreement.
What are the Main Elements of an Artist Collaboration Agreement?
A well-drafted artist collaboration agreement will address the following issues:
1) The Parties describes who is involved in the contract.
2) The Work explains what the Parties are trying to create. This should be described in as much detail as possible, but at a minimum it should include.
a. The working title
b. A description of what the final product will be, whether it’s a web comic, single print issue, graphic novel or ongoing series
c. The basic elements of the story, including the characters, settings, and other identifiable aspects of the book. If a synopsis and/or character designs of the work are available, they should be included in the contract.
3) The Copyright: breaks down the copyright ownership among all the members of the creative team as a percentage.
4) The Trademarks: breaks down the trademark ownership among all the members of the creative team as a percentage.
5) The Compensation: divides the revenue for all possible uses of the story and characters in the book, including:
a. Interactive Media
b. Screenplay Licensing
c. Premium Cable Licensing
d. Subscription Television Licensing:
e. Broadcast Television Licensing
g. Emerging Media Licensing
h. Novelization or Publishing:
j. Trademark Licensing (other than merchandise):
k. Live Performance Licensing
You might notice that the division of compensation goes far beyond the money you might collect for the initial publication of the comic book. But comic book stories and characters can exist and make money in any form of media now. It’s better to negotiate the video game rights for your story up front, even if your book never makes it to Xbox.
6) The Advance Recoupment: Any and all payments made to any party before revenue is generated and then deducted from the Compensation when revenue is generated. For example, the artist might get a page rate for their work on the book before publication, but that money can get recouped by the rest of the group when the book goes on sale.
7) The Responsibilities: lists the business, creative, and administrative responsibilities of each party in the development of the work in terms of both daily management and decision making authority. (See my post It Takes Two Teams to Publish a Successful Comic) It is not uncommon for each member of the team to handle multiple responsibilities including:
a. Business Management (determining budgets, dealing with contracts, etc.)
b. Human Resources (hiring work for hire artists and professionals)
c. Creative Production
d. Marketing (website maintenance, conventions, and direct market, etc.)
e. Advertising (social media, Diamond ads, etc.)
f. Distribution (online, printing, shipping)
g. Sales (account management, accounts receivable)
h. Finance (accounts payable, taxes)
8) The Withdrawal: What happens if one or more members of the team is unwilling or unable to complete the Work before it is completed. Allowances have to be made for several aspects of the deal including
a. Copyright ownership
b. Trademark ownership
d. Recoupment (if any)
While the artist collaboration contract can be overly complex when dealing with these issues, the best ones are understandable and don’t include a large amount of legal gymnastics. At the same time the elements of an artist collaboration agreement should not conflict with the terms of any agreement with an outside publisher or licensee of the property. Your legal advisor can review both contracts to ensure there is harmony between them.
Drafting, negotiating, and signing the contracts for your creative project might take some time and cost you some money, but if you sign the right contracts up front, you'll save money in the long-term and put both you and your book in a better position to succeed.
If you’re a comic book creator or freelance artist who has had artist collaboration agreement issues in the past, feel free to share them in the comments below and tell us how you dealt with the problem.
Have fun with your comic.
If you have questions about the business or legal aspects of your comic book publishing and you'd like a free consultation, please contact me and we can set something up that fits in with your schedule.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE AN ISSUE WITH YOUR COMIC PROPERTY, DISCUSS IT WITH A QUALIFIED CONTRACT ATTORNEY OR CONTACT C3 FOR A FREE CONSULTATION.