Selling your license

Q. A woman has contacted me about buying the rights to one of my paintings she saw online. It’s supposed to be for her one-time private use. How can I know how much money to ask of her?

A. This issue is coming up with an increasing frequency. What you want to offer this person is a licensing fee, and keep copyright out of it. I never advise artists to sell copyright, or one-time copyright, unless they get plenty of dough for it—the standards for which vary. But before you come to an agreement with this client, ask the following questions: For what reason specifically is the image being used? Is there any resale involved? How will you receive credit for the image? What is the expiration date of the agreement? Will you be giving final approval to how the image is re-created?

If the client wants to print the image once for private use, charge her $250, go out for sushi and call it a day. If she wants to use it for a billboard, charge her $30,000 and go to the Caribbean. Seriously, there’s no one standard that applies across the board. It depends on your career status, the work’s value and popularity, and purpose for which the client plans to use the image. Beyond these variables, a copyright lawyer can help you determine an appropriate fee.

Remember, copyright is different from licensing. By law, you own copyright on every work of art you produce, regardless of whether you register the copyright or even sign the piece. Never allow a client, especially a corporate one, to reproduce one of your works in merchandise such as greeting cards, brochures or posters without a written agreement signed by you. The agreement should address all the necessary issues: quantity, royalty, quality, proper recognition of the artist on the product and so on. It doesn’t matter if the party in question is giving these items away or selling them; the image belongs to you. Only you should determine how it will be used—unless you’ve signed away the copyright.

If you haven’t signed it away, and if a client reproduces a work of art without your permission, he’s violating copyright law. In my gallery, copyright law is addressed in every contract I write and in every certificate of authenticity we print when selling a work of art. This educates my clients on various aspects of that law and ways to stay within it.

You don’t always need to charge for copyright usage though. For example, if a corporate client wants to use one of my emerging artists’ work on its Web site or in printed material, I’ll often waive the fee in exchange for significant promotion. This decision pleases the corporation and usually helps us pick up a few more collectors. Once that same artist matures in his career, I normally charge the fee.

Could you ever picture a corporation giving away something it created for free? Of course not. It’s the responsibility of each artist, apart from creating his work, to also inspire appropriate respect for it. In some fashion, I do this with my clients every day. I trust that you and your dealers will do the same.

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