The first installment of this series seemed to generate a fair amount of interest – it seems like this subject is something that indie creators wanted to know about. So, I’ll continue with thoughts on some of the different types of agreements creators can make when putting together a project. My fellow creator Len N. Wallace (check out his book Love Buzz from Oni Press!) suggested that I also include (at some point) some discussion about provisions to watch for when you (as an indie writer or artist) are handed a contract by someone who wants to hire you. Contracts aren’t always transparent – in fact, they’re sometimes written in a way that’s intentionally confusing. That can leave a creator unaware of what they’ve really given away or agreed to do when they sign. Anyway, I think it’s a good idea, and I’ll definitely address that at some point.
But not today.
Today, I’d like to talk a bit about the way rights can be handled under creator contracts, with a particular focus on rights to do things beyond just creating or publishing the comic. Rights to “intellectual property” (a term that just means, in its very simplest terms, anything created, whether a work of art, a brand, a logo, an invention, etc. – yes, legal scholars out there, a more technical definition could be provided, but for the purposes of this blog, that’ll do) are often described using the “bundle of sticks” analogy. In other words, think of a bundle of sticks tied together with a string. Each stick represents a right to do something with a given piece of intellectual property (in this situation, let’s call it a comic book project.) One stick might represent the right to publish the book. Another might represent the right to be paid when and if the book makes money. Another stick could signify the right to take the comic book and make a second type of work based on the book (movie, TV show, t-shirt, etc.) Each of those sticks could be broken down into smaller sticks, too – for example, the right to publish the book could be divided into two sticks – one for publishing the book in the US and another for publishing the book overseas.
A good contract covers the entire bundle, so that no matter what happens with a project, everyone involved knows exactly who holds which sticks. Some sticks usually end up on one side of the contract, and some on the other. The nice thing about a good contract, too, is that it can be drafted in a way to take care of sticks that haven’t even been thought of yet. For example, in the old days, contracts didn’t cover digital media (electronic copies of works, like a PDF or an iphone version), because those didn’t exist yet. In the really old days, they didn’t even cover reprints or collected editions, because comics were thought of as disposable. The idea that anyone would collect these floppy little books printed for kids on cheap newsprint, or they would be in print for decades, wasn’t something anyone was thinking of – creators or publishers.
That situation has led to any number of headaches as new technology and industry practices came into use, requiring either renegotiation of contracts or, at worst, lawsuits. These days, most contracts include language licensing the part of the bundle of sticks covering “ancillary works” (that just means works beyond the original comic, that are based on it) in a way that covers evolution of tech and so on. The typical language looks something like this:
“The rights described herein are licensed to the licensee for use in connection with all derivative works, including electronic editions, adaptations for film, television, portable devices, merchandising and all other forms of exploitation, whether now in existence or hereinafter devised.”
It’s the underlined part that counts – it means that the rights being licensed cover EVERY way a project or book might be turned into something else going forward. You can see how this might be good or bad, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Most contract language works this way – it’s just a tool, and it can be used for good or evil.
Next up (after New York Comicon this weekend, which should be AWESOME… I’ll be posting up my signing schedule shortly) will be a discussion of how long a contract should last, and how to get out of it. “Term and termination,” we’ll call it.
Let me know if this stops being useful!