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Art Licensing by artist Joan Beiriger: I'm happy to share art licensing info but please
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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Licensing Art: Don't be a legend in your own mind!

Some artists are so afraid that their art will be stolen that they will not put it on a website or show it to manufacturers unless the manufacturer first signs a non-disclosure statement. Regrettably that really limits the success they might have in art licensing because art needs to be seen in order to get licensing deals. I agree with the mantra of Susan Miller, owner of Mixed Media Group* who states "Don't be a legend in your own mind." During the Licensing 101 seminar at Licensing International Expo 2007, Susan expressed her mantra and explained that no one will see your idea, concept or art if you don't show it. But you do need to protect it as best as you can, seek licensing partners (manufacturers) that are reputable, and prosecute persons knocking off your art if it makes economic sense.

*Mixed Media Group, Inc. specializes in the development, production and licensing of intellectual properties such as ventriloquist Sherry Lewis, the animated series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, Mrs. Fields Cooky Corp., Marvel, Scholastic, Time, Inc. brands and artist Sandra Magsamen. Note: At the time this article was written Mixed Media Group website was "under construction" so it is not linked.

Yes, you do take risks that your art will be lifted when you market your art by showing it to manufacturers, placing ads, distributing marketing material, showing it to the public on your website, and licensing it onto products. Unfortunately artists do get ripped off. And often they don't know it until perchance their family or friends spot the art and tell them or they see the art while browsing the internet. So it is a catch-22. Either do not show your art and fail to get deals OR show it and get deals but risk the possibility of having it stolen.

It is impossible to absolutely protect your art but listed below are some suggestions to help or at least make it more difficult to steal. Many dishonest people are lazy and if it is too much trouble to steal the art they will skip it and move on to more accessible images.

Copyright Art
Make sure that you place a copyright symbol and your name on all your art. A dishonest person can still remove it but at least they will have to go through the trouble to do so.

Registering for copyrights at the Library of Congress is a way to protect your art in case you need to file a lawsuit. Read attorney Joshua Kaufman article "Filing Copyrights: How and Why or Just Do It!" for the reasons why. Note: This article was written in 1999 and the cost to register has increased and an alternative method of filing via the internet has been added. Filing over the internet is less expensive and faster to register than by "snail-mail." For help on registering online, read artist Khristian Howell's step-by-step instructions on "navigating the copyright website ..."

Another reason to register copyrights is that it is a good deterrent when approaching dishonest business' with a stop-and-desist order in using your art. Showing them the copyright number(s) verifies that you are very protective about your art and that you may file a lawsuit if they continue to use it.

Also, some manufacturers request that you supply them with copyright numbers of the art that they are interested in. They want to make sure that you are doing your job in protecting your art.

Non-disclosure Agreements (NDA)
Some books about art licensing suggest that artists have manufacturers sign non-disclosure agreements (also known as confidentiality agreement, confidential disclosure agreement and proprietary information agreement) before they show them their art. There are some cases that this would be possible such as for product development but in licensing art it is not practicable. Manufacturers do not have the time for their lawyers to look over the agreement and frankly most manufacturers refuse to sign them. Also, some manufactures believe that when an artist requests that they sign a non-disclosure agreement, it is an indication that the artist may be litigious. Thus, the manufacturer decides not deal with that artist.

It is better to approach manufacturers that are reputable and you can trust. If in doubt about a particular manufacturer, network with other artists to find out their experiences with the manufacturer. Note: By U.S. law, no one is allowed to slander anyone and possibly damage their reputation. So if you ask questions about manufacturers through some of the art licensing forums you will not hear any negatives about them. However, artists may be willing to discuss their experiences if you request that they contact you personally via email or telephone.

Low Resolution Files
Place images on your website and send images to manufacturers as small and as low resolution as possible but still show the art well. There is less chance that art files at 72 to 100 dpi will be usable. Note: Even at a low resolution it is still possible to increase the image size and have good resolution. Read "Art Licensing Tip: Increase Art Size and Still Have Good Resolution" to find out how.

Watermark Art
There are two methods in watermarking image files - visual and digital. The visual method is to place a transparent copyright notice across each image. The digital method is to either enter copyright information into the metadata area of the file information or to use digimarc.

visual watermarks
Many artists place transparent copyright information across the surface of their art when displaying them on the internet in order to deter people from lifting the images. View "Photoshop CS4- Watermarking & Copyrighting Your Images" and "Photoshop CS4 - Action & Batch Processing" (automatically applies copyright image and watermarks to multiple files) videos on how to create your own watermark. Note: Placing visual watermarks help to protect the art but will not stop a determined person from removing them with Adobe Photoshop healing tool.

Ever wonder why most art agencies websites do not have visual watermarks on the art? The reason is because it detracts from the art. Agents have found that manufacturers extremely dislike watermarks. Thus, the agencies do not use them because they want to showcase their artists work in the best possible way. When marketing to manufacturers, consider this reason before using watermarks on your own art.

metadata watermarks
Embedding metadata copyright information into art files may help protect them from copyright infringement but only if the file is not converted to another format. Unfortunately metadata is lost when converting the file from one format to another (for example, from Photoshop psd to a jpg file). Although, it may be useful to embed copyright information when sending high resolution files to manufacturers to show that the artist owns the art. Copyright information can be embedded in the file by opening the file in Photoshop, then go to File / File Info ... and enter the copyright information in the Description window. Or use Bridge software to automatically enter the information with a metadata template. Read number 4 in "Discover the Magic of Adobe Bridge" on how to create metadata templates in Bridge.

digimarc watermarks
Digimarc is a digital watermark code that embeds copyright information into Photoshop images.  It can be accessed in Photoshop by going to Filter / Digimarc.  Digimarc company claims that "Digimarc digital watermark adds copyright information to Photoshop images and notify users that an image is copyright protected via a digital watermark that uses Digimarc ImageBridge technology. The watermark - a digital code added as noise to the image - is virtually imperceptible to the human eye. The Digimarc watermark is durable in both digital and printed forms, surviving typical image edits and file format conversions."

I have not used Digimarc because it is expensive. But I wanted to include it in this post so that you are aware that it exists. The basic subscription costs $49 per year and includes digital watermarks for up to 1000 images, owner info lookup, linking service, tech tools, and search summary. The professional subscription costs $99 per year and includes digital watermarks for up to 2000 images, digimarc search service plus the other services included in the basic subscription.

File Names
It is tempting to label your image files with recognizable names (such as cute bunny 1, daisy trio, garden flowers, and winter birds) so that you can easily identify the art in it. But placing files on the internet with recognizable names is a risk. The files may be lifted and placed on public domain sites because search engines are constantly trolling the internet looking for images. Make it harder for them to identify the images by not leaving spaces between words or better yet by using a numbering and lettering system to identify the files. As an example, VAL003round_2 is my way of labeling the file as the third valentine collection that I created and is the second one formatted as round. I know that it is a valentine image because of the letters VAL. But to find out what the image looks like, I need to look up the number in my database.

Disabling Right click
If a person uses a computer with a windows operating system, they can copy files off the internet by doing a right click with their mouse. By inserting a html command in the website software, this command can be disabled. Go to "No Right Click - for images" to get the software and instructions on how to do it.

Unfortunately, there is no way to stop Macintosh users from lifting art. They can simply pull images from the internet onto their desktop. It also does not stop people from capturing images with screen capture utility software. To capture images with the Mac hold down command and shift and the number 4 keys at the same time. A circled-plus-symbol appears. Place the symbol at one corner of the desired image, hold down the mouse button and drag down to the diagonal area of the image to be copied. Release the mouse button and the image will appear on the desktop as a numbered Picture.png file.

Password Protected Area in Website

Many artists and art licensing agencies use a password protected section on their website to show art to manufacturers. A window is shown to enter the password in order to view the protected area. The password can be received by listing an email address so that manufacturers can request it or a dialog box is posted for qualified manufacturers to fill out so that they can receive the password. Contact your website hosting provider to find out if password protection is available and if it is ask how to put it on your site.

Not all manufacturers have the time or inclination to request and remember passwords. And because they do not, some artists and agents display all their art. They are willing to take a chance that the art will not be stolen. They hope to increase licensing deals by giving the maximum visibility of the art.

Don't be a legend in your own mind!

Get your art out there and show it in as many places as you can. Do due diligence and search for reputable manufacturers to license your art. Make it as hard as possible for dishonest people to copy your art. And if they do, contact them and prosecute if it makes economic sense. Then move on and continue to create new art and get lots of licensing deals!

Comments are welcomed. Please click on comments and write them in the comment window at the bottom of this article.


  1. I never realized there were THAT many ways to lose control of one's image but I AM tired of worrying about it and doing NOTHING.

  2. Once again, Joan - incredibly useful information!

  3. Hi Joan,
    Thanks for the great information on protecting work for license. After reading your artical, I see the importance for recoding my images in a new, abstract format--no spaces, more #'s etc. I have the username/password intact for manufacture access--so glad I checked in with you before it's launching...

  4. There is nothing like the shock of walking down the isle in one of the big box stores only to discover your own artwork staring you in the face! Having had my artwork stolen on several occasions I can tell you there are only two choices... #1 - You can keep you artwork in the closet and keep it reasonably safe. Or #2 - You can market your art and know that (if it is any good) it will get ripped off... The problem is some manufactures know they can steel your art. They will stop selling it if you discover what they are doing and confront them, but that’s OK. They have already made their money, they didn’t have to pay you and they know most artists don’t have the money to sue them.

    I've made good money licensing my art... but not nearly as much as the companies that have used it illegally... Licensing can be fun and very profitable, but it's not for faint hearted. You have to know if you're going to play the game sometimes you will get ripped off!

  5. Ack! I've struggled with the password-protected catalog issue. Right now I show some samples on my site, but the bulk of my catalog is protected.

    It's an easy sign-up process, but I fear that busy art buyers won't want to take time to wait for approval just to see my art.

    On the other hand, I don't want my hard work being stolen. Even though I've registered copyrights on all my art, it's still a risk.

    For someone new to licensing, this is one of the hardest questions I've faced. As a former art director who used to hire artists, my gut says to put it all out in the open and make it as easy as possible.

    On the other hand, most art buyers aren't randomly finding my site. They go there because I've reached out to them - in which case I could already have them set up with a user name and password.

    So.. conundrum. Still.