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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Editorial: The Truth about Licensing Art

There are many positive reasons to create art for licensing because otherwise artists would not license their art. But, just like all businesses' the art licensing industry also has negative aspects. I believe that power is knowing the negatives because you can use that knowledge to be prepared and not have unrealistic expectations in licensing your art. And, sometimes you can convert the negatives to positives.

Negative Aspects
The following is a list in no particular order of what an artist should know about the negative aspects in licensing art. Note: These are my opinions. Other artists, licensing agents and experts in the art licensing industry may have different opinions. It is always wise to get several viewpoints and not depend on only one.

• Licensing art is very competitive. There are thousands of artists trying to license their art. And, the number of artists increase each year. Thus, getting licensing contracts is harder each year.

• Not every artist can make a living by licensing her / his art because of the competition and less retailers selling licensed products.

• Licensing is NOT a 9AM to 5PM job. Artists need to juggle daily personal commitments with creating art and other associated licensing duties. Dedicated licensed artists work more than 12 hours a day especially when a deadline looms.

• Not all art is licensable. There are many reasons why beautiful art is not licensable. To find out why, read "Editorial: Not all Art is Licensable."

• Artists will not be able to license all the art they create. Because of the competitive industry, not all art themes are popular, and the art may be ahead or behind the trend. Also, not every image licensed will be licensed for more than one product. It may not be the right image for other products or manufacturers are not interested in licensing it for whatever reason.

• Not all art licensing agents and manufacturers are honest. Unfortunately, contracts are not always in the best interest to the artist and not every agent or manufacturer pay artists monies owed them. It is always wise to ask others in the art licensing industry if a manufacturer / agent that you are considering is reputable. And, you should have an attorney experienced in art licensing look over the contract before signing it.

• It is difficult to protect art from copyright infringers. Some artists watermark their images and use password protected websites. But, there are downsides to doing so. Many manufacturers will not take the time to request a password from the artist to view the art and dislike watermarks because they detract from the art. But in any case, artists should copyright their art with the Library of Congress so that if they need to sue for infringement and win, they will get legal fees paid beside being awarded statutory damages. To learn more about copyrights, read attorney Joshua Kaufman's article "Filing Copyrights: How and Why or Just Do It!"

• Art directors look at 100s of images for EACH image that is licensed. Thus, manufacturers showing interest in your art does not necessarily mean it will be licensed. For instance, experienced SURTEX show exhibitors know that the reality is that less than 10% (more like zero to 3%) of the art that art directors request for licensing consideration results in a deal.

• Not all licensed art have accurate colors on products. This could be due to the type of process used to print the art on the product, the manufacturer does not have or take the time to make sure the colors are accurate, or the manufacturer purposely changes the color saturation so that the colors are brighter (sometimes done for decorative flags). Note: Not having accurate colors most likely will not affect the sale of the product because consumers have not seen the original art. Although I do grimace when I see some of my licensed art on products.

• Getting a deal does not always mean that the product will be produced. It could be a print-on-demand type of deal which means the art on the product will only be produced if a retailer orders it. Or, the production of the art on the product is cancelled for some reason. Also, sometimes the manufacturer only produces one batch and if the amount sold does not meet expectations it is not produced again even though the contract will not expire for several more years.

• Royalties from a deal can be a very small amount or nothing if the product does not sell well. Sometimes an artist can make more revenue from a licensing flat fee than from a royalty deal.

• More and more manufacturers are pre-selling their products before producing them. That means they may request HiRes art (high resolution) from the artist so that they can make samples for presentations. An artist needs to really trust the manufacturer before sending them HiRes art for presentation because no contract is signed.

• Manufacturers may request that the artist hold art for them so that they can give presentations to their clients. If the artist agrees, it means that she/he cannot license the art in the same category to another manufacturer. Sometimes the manufacturer will hold the art for months and the artist loses the chance to license the art that year if it is not accepted by the client.

• Artists may be requested by a manufacturer to create art on speculation. That means there is no guarantee that it will be licensed. Although, there is always a possibility it will be licensed by another manufacturer. Some artists require that they get a designer fee before starting work on a spec project. Others work on spec under certain conditions such as only designing an art theme that appeals to a broad spectrum of consumers so the chances of it being licensed is greater. Or, the artist already has a good working relationship with a manufacturer and thinks that they will most likely create art that will be licensed.

• Artist are not always able to approved the product sample before it goes into production. Many times the production cycle is too tight and manufacturers are not willing to let the artist approve the sample. Although sometimes they will send a picture of the final product via the internet.

• Certain themes even though they are popular may be difficult to license to some industries. These manufacturers already have artists that are licensing those themes and they are not looking for another. For instance, calendar manufactures already license art from certain artists year-after-year for country, song birds, cats, roosters, wine and coastal themes. Until those artists can no longer produce enough art (normally 12 - 13 images per calendar), other artists will not be able to get a deal with them.

Related Articles
• "10, oops, 17, Things You Need to Learn to Make It in Art Licensing" by licensing art agent Jim Marcotte of Two Town Studios.

"Editorial: Art Licensing Myths" - Myth #1: License your art so you do not have to work so hard, Myth #2: License your art if you are broke and need money. Myth #3: Any art can be licensed. Myth #4: One design can be licensed for ALL products. Myth #5: An artist will get many licensing deals by signing with an agency. Myth #6: Licensing revenue is always from royalties.

• "Editorial: Art Licensing Myths continued (myth #7 to #12)" Myth #7: An artist must have an agent or manufacturer sign a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) before showing art. Myth #8: Agents not only manage the business part of licensing but track trends, guide the artist in what art to create, and critics it. Myth #9: There is a manufacturer art size and file format standard. Myth #10: There is a standard time of the year for submitting art to manufacturers. Myth #11: Manufacturers prefer to license art from agents than from individual artists. Myth #12: Participating in manufacturers call-for-submissions (cattle-calls) is a waste of time.

• "Editorial: Art Licensing Myths continued (myth #13 to #18)" Myth #13: You are not infringing on the copyright if you change someone's art 5, 10, or 20%. Myth #14: Any free clip art and fonts found on internet websites can be used in art and not infringe on the copyright. Myth #15: Art licensing agencies always contact the artist when she/he submits art for representation. Myth #16: A good way to get a licensing deal is to send out e-mail blasts. Myth: #17 A manufacturer keeps producing product with the same art if it sells well. Myth: #18 You only need to follow-up once after contacting a manufacturer.

I have never worked harder in my life than licensing my art. It can be a frustrating business but it is so worth it when product samples arrive with my art on it, I see my art on products in stores, and the quarterly licensing revenue arrives.

Perhaps art licensing agent Lance Klass of Porterfield's Fine Art Licensing states it best with "I came away from this article with the understanding that what Joan is essentially saying to artists is that they should enter art licensing with their eyes wide open, expecting the best but not being dismayed when things don't work out the way they should. And not giving up when one runs into the inevitable bumps in the road."

Make sure that you read the comments about this article.  Readers have share some useful information!!!
Your comments are welcome. Please click on the comments section (below) to write your comment.


  1. Terrific piece, Joan. These are just the facts of life when it comes to art licensing, and no one - no artist, no agent - should take any of this personally. To quote from Godfather #1 - "It ain't personal, it's business."

    In spite of all these negatives (and there are even more that aren't listed) there's every reason in the world to dive into the world of art licensing. When you run into a negative, handle it or ignore it, and move on. Don't let them slow you down.

    1. I like that. I agree.

      Carol L. Lozito,
      Wildlife Artist

  2. Great article, Joan, and very timely with many of us heading off to Ssurtex with high hopes !

  3. Hi Joan,

    You mention 'cattle call' manufacturer call-for-submissions. As a licensing artist how do you hear about these types of callouts?

    Great article!

    Claire x

  4. Thanks Claire. I hear about "cattle-calls" from my agent. "Cattle-Calls" is the informal term used by some artists but the more official term "art call-outs" should be used when corresponding with manufacturers. If you do not have an agent, ask manufacturers when you contact them if they have call-outs. If they do, ask to be put on their list.

    1. Thanks so much Joan. Ive got myself licensing deals, perhaps I should now look for an agent?!

  5. I do not think anyone has a favorite in the negative aspects of licensing their art. But, the one I find the most frustrating is when manufacturers show interest in my art and I know that the possibility of getting a deal is small even with their interest because of the competition. There is so much great art available for art directors to choose!

  6. Thanks so much for this insight Joan, its very much appreciated. I am new to art licensing and trying to learn as much as I possibly can.

  7. Sigh..every thing Joan says is "Oh so true."
    A lot of licensing is speculative work for no money both on the part of the artist and the agent.

    In my opinion, the most successful and happiest artist/agent relationships are with a close friend or relative (husband, wife, brother, sister, son, daughter) who has as much financial interest in promoting your work as you do yourself. If you look at some of the most successful licensors-Mary Engelbreit, Flavia, Ruth Morehead, Laurel Burch, Giordano etc- they are family businesses. Doesn't mean they don't occasionally use professional agents along the way, but usually there's someone involved who has parallel interests with the artist, who handles the legal and business side of licensing.
    And some of the most successful licensors are certainly not the most talented- they are the artists who have persisted, no matter how mundane their artwork.

    I've never found agents who have large stables of artists to be of much value- they are more interested in selling their clients to me than finding appropriate licensees for my style. Many "so called licensees" now like to simply "shop off the rack" which they see as more economical than having to pay art directors and artists to develop artwork, unique to their company. They believe going with a "tried and true" previously licensed brand or style will be more safe and profitable than developing an recognizable identity for their own company.

    Knowing your own style and shopping for your own clients with whom you can develop long tern relationships and who have a customer base for your particular style has been more profitable for me than courting licensees who want to just buy individual pieces of art piecemeal out of my portfolio. And pairing your licensees so that art that you develop for one clients will be licensable to your other clients in different product areas can be more time efficient than spending energy on a lot of unprofitable licensees who just want to "try things out."

    Answering "cattle calls" or doing trade shows can be one way of making a lot of contacts and getting your licensing program going fast. Many of licensees you find at trade shows however will never really develop into full-fledged partnerships. For artists, who do not have agents specifically handling the business side of their art, finding a core groups of dependable licensees where your work will generate reasonable amounts of money may be a better way to go.

    So I'm a big fan of making a plan for your licensing program and evaluating where your work will be successful because there's simply not enough time to life to pursue all the potential opportunities.

  8. hey peggy...thanks for your time & insights

  9. An excellent article, and it should be required reading for every artist who is thinking about getting into licensing. A few other points are also worth mentioning:

    Even with a contract, there is no assurance that the licensee will follow (or even read) the terms of that contract, even if it is the licensee's own contract. To the extent possible, it is often helpful to discuss key details with the licensee before signing to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This is especially true if you have added terms to the agreement. Trying to "sneak something by" is not a good policy, as the licensee will just ignore it, and since the licensee is usually bigger than you, enforcement is likely to be a futile effort.

    Learn the business. Too many artists want to skip this step because they feel it is incompatible with being an artist, but an artist who fails to take the time to learn the business aspects of licensing is issuing an invitation to be taken advantage of.

  10. ahh, Joan, you've done it again . . .brought it to the table in an informative, straight forward manner. Thank you.

    The industry has changed significantly over the few years I've been privileged to be a part of it. The insight you share about our business is rarely discussed/shared in the many "pay me and I'll show you how you can make money art licensing" e-workshops. Thus the birth of a rather large population of starry-eyed creatives has been issued forth. Your candor offers a valuable counter balance

    Regardless, our changing industry is opportunity for growth, innovation, and creativity and these are precisely our strengths as creative people.

  11. Joan...thank you and thank all of you who replied with meaningful commentary on the competition that exists in this industry.

    Keep the comments coming, both good and disappointing experiences are important lessons for all of us who aspire to be involved in art licensing.

  12. A family member entered into a licensing deal with a very "good" looking licensing agency in the US without really thinking about it. The royalty rate was preposterous- 7.5%. (Agent splits 15% with the artist 50/50. Think about it, on $100,000 worth of art reproductions sold, the royalty rate would pay $7500. Need I say more? Add to this, no real way of tracking sales and receipts, either from the publishers (buyers) or the licensing agent. All on trust or audit the books, easily cooked as well. We can't wait for the contract to run out.