Become an Artist >> Browse Articles >> Art Licensing


Is it a Mistake to Sell the Rights to Your Art?

Is it a Mistake to Sell the Rights to Your Art?

Tara Reed |

I have been asked by artists new to the concept of licensing, whether it is possible to retain the reproductive rights to their artwork or whether it is a mistake to take a lump-sum of money in a buyout. The word “mistake” is often used. Is it a mistake to sell outright? Is it a mistake to take a flat fee? etc.

I like to think of what some people call mistake as learning experiences.

The first thing that needs to be cleared up is who is who in an art licensing situation. The “licensor” is the artist – the person with the thing (art) being licensed. The “licensee” is the person (manufacturer) wanting to use the art on their product. An easy way I came up with to keep it straight is to say “The licensee isn’t me” – sounds juvenile but I haven’t been confused since I came up it!

Now to the meat of the issue: licensing vs. buyout vs. flat fee. If you are licensing your art you retain the copyrights to the art. That is what licensing is. Part of the contract should state that you are giving the rights to use the art on a certain product or group of products but that the licensee does not own or have an interest in the copyright of the art.

When you license your art, you can be paid in one of two ways: with a royalty based on sales (the traditional art licensing arrangement) or with a pre-determined flat-fee.

Of course the confusion can come in when you get into a “flat fee license”. There are times when a company wants to pay an up-front, predetermined amount instead of the traditional royalties based on sales. But it should still be done with a contract and still define the products, a time frame (1 year, 2 years, forever… whatever you agree to) and that you maintain the copyrights. There is a big difference between this and selling outright because you still have the ability to get more flat fee or traditional royalty-based licenses.

If you get an up-front sum and transfer the copyrights, you are selling your art outright and not licensing it at all.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to understand which of these three options is being offered to you and weigh the pros and cons. I have done all three at one point in my career but prefer to license for royalties whenever possible.

If the art in question isn’t something you think you could really leverage and license across a lot of categories, you might consider taking a flat fee. Sometimes you need the cash flow. The trade off of visibility and brand recognition vs. royalty based licensing might come into play.

Each situation is unique so I just try and make an informed decision instead of digging my feet in the sand. For me, I strive to get royalties whenever possible. But there are cases and product categories where upfront money is just as good if not better.

Find the right campus or online art or design program for you!