How Do I License My Creative Design?

Creative art licensing
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Artists and designers are diversifying their income stream and gaining increased exposure by licensing their creative design in partnership with retailers, companies, and interested buyers.  A painter might create a pattern or surface design to license for fabric or dishes. A graphic artist or illustrator can license a character or logo for print and online marketing. Actively licensing your work for use in other mediums is a great way to extend your product line.

What is a Creative Design License?

Art licensing mechanisms exist because the default rule in copyright law (with some exceptions) is that “if you make it, you own it.” But copyright is actually comprised of a bundle of rights, including the right to copy, reproduce, publicly display, publicly perform, make derivative works, or do nothing at all. As the creator of your work, you have the right to control all the different ways it’s put out into the world – a license is simply the permission you give to another person to use your creations and to define the boundaries of how they may use your work.

Strictly speaking, permission is required anytime someone uses something you have created. Many of these licenses are informal- a friend asks to use a picture on her website, and you say okay; or implied- a blogger uses an image in a review of your show, and you make no objection. These informal agreements or uses are okay because under copyright law, the rights holder is not obligated to act in every case of infringement, and failing to act does not jeopardize the copyright holder’s status as the rights holder. Unlike other forms of intellectual property, copyright is not a “use it or lose it” right.

Other licenses, however, are very structured and tracked with written documentation: giving your gallerist permission to display your work in the gallery and to copy and reproduce pictures of your designs for all marketing, publicity, and catalogs in conjunction with that exhibition for some period of time; or making a deal with a company who wants to use your photograph as the cover of its annual conference materials.

Creative Licensing Agreements

As you can see, licenses have many elements that need to be considered and discussed. So, let’s talk about the details.

Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive 

The first and perhaps biggest question is whether the license is exclusive or non-exclusive. When you license designs as ‘exclusive.’, the person who is going to use the work wants to be the only one to be able to use the work. Perhaps it is a worldwide exclusive license (for example, the only company in the world, in any form or industry, who is entitled to use your photograph); or perhaps it is an industry-wide exclusive (for example, the licensee wants to be the only one in the beverage industry entitled to use that photograph commercially, but you remain free to license it to one or more clothing distributor).

In some cases, the license can be exclusive for a specified period of time, or some combination of all of these. In any case, people seeking an exclusive art licensing agreement are asking for a monopoly on the use of rights, and that monopoly has both added value to the licensee and restricts the artist/creative’s rights to benefit financially or creatively from licensing designs to other parties. Therefore, an exclusive license almost always costs more.

A non-exclusive license is the opposite of the exclusive: it gives one person the right to use the artwork but does not restrict others from licensing it as well. One design may have many simultaneous (or non-simultaneous) non-exclusive licenses. You can think of it as the Oprah option: “You get a license! You get a license! You get a license! Everyone gets a license!”

For many people seeking to license creative works, the non-exclusive is the best choice because it is more cost-effective and the intended use is something other than the main focus. For example, stock photos that accompany articles like this one are placed to enhance the content by breaking up the text, not to be the content. You can very likely find these stock photos properly used in any number of media, including accompanying other articles.

An additional benefit of the non-exclusive license is that it eases the administrative burden on the creative who does not have to worry that issuing one license may violate the terms of another license. For the creative as well as the licensee, the non-exclusive license creates ease and the least restrictions on the ability to give multiple licenses.

Defining the Scope 

Another one of the rights in the bundle of rights in an art or design licensing agreement is defining the medium or media that the license will cover, and how the licensee intends to use the creative’s work. For example, someone may ask for an image license for the cover of a book. However, today a “book” no longer means print materials only. It will also include digital versions and e-books, online publicity, and reproduction on the publisher’s and distribution channels’ websites.

See also
Fair Use of Copyright Images in Your Blog

The client licensing artworks or designs will want the scope to include “print and any digital media now in use or created in the future,” i.e. the broadest possible scope to avoid having to renegotiate the terms of the license each time there is an expansion in the scope of “digital.” As the creator, however, you generally want a slightly narrower scope: “print and all digital media now in use or created in the future, in conjunction with the book entitled…” The subtle difference in the wording affects the scope because it ensures that the image is not available for general use in all digital media, but only in conjunction with a specific book.

Territory and Duration 

Two elements that are important to consider when licensing designs include the territory- where will the use be – and duration- how long will it last? Territory in the digital age can be tricky and usually defaults to “the universe” because people all over the world (and in the air) can access digital content. However, the territory may be smaller and have interplay with other elements of the license. For example, if I have an exclusive art licensing agreement in place with a regional company that operates only in the United States, I may want to limit the territory of exclusivity to the United States, or North America, so that I might explore options to license designs to companies in Europe or Asia. If I want to add an element of duration to that, I may offer that company a worldwide exclusive (often phrased as “throughout the universe”) for the first six months, and a North American exclusive for the remaining portion of a five-year term, or forever (often phrased in contract language as “in perpetuity”).

Another example that focuses on duration: if you give a license for use on a blog for a period of one month with no further clarification, that may mean that the person using the image has to return to the page(s) that contain the image and remove it after the expiration of the license. Because new digital content is in focus for only a short time but archived forever (often by third parties – I’m looking at you, Google), this is not a practical arrangement. A better way to address the realities of web dissemination would be to have unlimited use of new content for a month, with perpetual archival rights. Simply put, once the month has expired the image cannot be added to any newly created posts but may remain on the posts that were created during the art licensing period.

Pricing Your Licensed Designs

The general rules of pricing, as mentioned, are that exclusive rights are more valuable than non-exclusive rights, a broader scope is more valuable than a narrower one, and larger territory or longer duration are respectively more valuable than smaller territory and shorter duration. However, there is no requirement that you follow these guidelines, or that you follow them consistently. You may grant a free license to one person and charge another for the same license parameters. Or, you may decide to create a specific art licensing pricing structure and consider granting exceptions, or not, based on the other party’s resources or your connection to the project. And design licenses are also granted as part of a larger context; in the gallery exhibition example, you give a gallerist a display/marketing license as part of the exhibition or representation agreement. In that case, the display/marketing license is free because it is part of the overall financial arrangement necessary to effectively sell the design that is represented in the images you are licensing, and the sale is where you will make your money.

Other guidelines for navigating pricing when you license creative work include the reputation and longevity of the creative; the type of use contemplated by the license; and the reach of the use. For example, an established creative professional will charge more to license designs than an emerging designer, who may license work for as little as $100.

The type of use is a multi-part analysis. The first part is commercial use versus non-commercial use. If the use is commercial- anything from using your image in print ads for a business to the reproduction of the image on mugs and t-shirts- the art license pricing should be higher than the cost of a non-commercial license, like for use in conjunction with a charity event or in a magazine profile on you as a creative.

Secondly, if the license is for commercial use for mugs or t-shirts or some tangible good with scalable distribution, the license will most often include a base price for the image and some amount of money per unit sold. Let’s say your painting is going to be on a mug; you may have the initial art licensing fee of $250 and additional royalties of $.10 per mug sold, payable every six months, along with an accounting of sales during that period. Finally, the reach of the item will make a difference; you will be able to get both a higher initial license fee and a higher per-unit fee with a company that has national distribution, than a small local or regional company.

See also
How to License Your Art Successfully

Negotiating Your Creative Licensing Arrangement

Above all, when negotiating a license, consider the practical effects and the needs of both parties. You may not want to offer license artwork and/or designs in a manner that is too restrictive in scope so that the licensee has to contact you each time there is an unanticipated development that may fall outside the scope of use (unless you want that control). Consider what you as a creative professional can gain from the transaction and the resources of the other party, and do not underestimate the benefit of administrative ease.  Creatives who are communicative and understanding of the parameters of an agreement serve as assets in cultivating long-term business relationships.

Potential Ways You Can License Creative Work

Mass Licenses for Exposure as a Designer

Rather than an individually negotiated license, the copyright holder also has the right to designate that images may be used royalty-free. Under Creative Commons, creators can retain copyright while allowing the public to use, copy, reproduce, and build on existing creations by granting a mass license under uniform terms. There are a number of licenses, allowing for designations that range from, minimally, a grant of non-commercial use, all the way to completely unrestricted use, including for commercial purposes. For a number of the opportunities to license designs on a broad scale listed below, the designer must choose which Creative Commons license to apply to the work, or the site will designate which Creative Commons license will be applied to images uploaded to the site.

Unlike individual art licensing, compensation is not an element of the agreement. The benefit of sites that allow designers/creatives to upload images to add to the site’s catalog is that the sites have a massive reach and inclusion will increase the creative’s exposure to that audience. Theoretically, the exposure translates into a greater individual following for the designer, who will then be in a position to negotiate individual art licenses for that or other work. You have to decide how to navigate how many images to place on which sites to maximize the benefit to you and the goals for your creative work; if your goal is sharing, then mass licenses are wonderful tools, but if you are looking to build a traditional gallery-based career, you may want to differentiate the work you create for Creative Commons governed sites from the rest of your work.

Mass Licensing Opportunities for Profit

So where do you find places to license design work? Photographers in the digital age have an abundance of opportunities to post their photography on art licensing sites like Pexels, Flickr, and Unsplash.

If film and television is an area of interest and you would like to see your work in the background of productions, there are a number of companies that rent creative works to sets. These companies are usually geared towards artists and designers in the city of location and include Art for Film NYC and Film Art LA. There are also a variety of galleries, such as Art Space Warehouse, that exhibit works of emerging contemporary designers and illustrators, and also make them available for art licensing for film and television, events, and staging. Don’t live near a major location? You can still expand your reach. Contact some local interior designers, event planners, and realtors who do home staging. These professionals can place your work in different residential and commercial spaces and assist in selling or referring interested buyers to you.

Always remember, though, to license creative work for all of the above outlets depends on the overall look and feel is created, and is not a personal reflection on your talent or style. Unless you are planning to focus on making work for these specific industries, the frequency with which your work is selected from the stable of creatives can vary tremendously.

License Away!

Understanding the language of art licensing and making a plan about how you want your work to be used and in what capacities are a solid step in handling the business of your designs. Explore the different areas for licensing designs and artwork, spend some time looking at the Creative Commons site, and most of all, if you are inclined, participate in the wide variety of art licensing opportunities that exist for designers.

Do you license designs? Let us know in the comments!



About the author

Kelly Trager

For the past seventeen years, Kelly Trager has dedicated her life to the arts as a dance artist, arts attorney, professor of arts and cultural and design management, and advisor. She currently teaches at Pratt Institute in NYC and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and runs a solo arts law practice, KKTLaw.


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