Every so often someone floats a post about “Work for Hire” (WFH) being the scourge of the universe and a complete abuse of artists.
This is complete rubbish.
Work For Hire is completely fair and acceptable to all parties involved. And traditionally, the standard type of agreement for comic work.
What does Work For Hire mean anyway?
It all comes down to copyright and ownership of the work.
Any time an artist sits down and creates an original work, they own that work, and have defacto copyright protection (whether or not they actually register that copyright by the way.)
Ok, so what is Copyright Protection anyway?
Copyright is a legal acknowledgement of an owner’s rights, specifically: reproduction rights of the work; distribution rights of copies; creation rights of derivative works; and control rights over the public performance and display of the work.
This is where the first big slip up occurs from people not understanding work for hire (complaining it’s unfair): Copyright law gets crazy complex. You could go to law school and spend years learning to specialize in it. Things like moral rights, preventing destruction, and technological protection are just a few other aspects of copyright law.
Luckily, you don’t need to be an experienced IP lawyer to understand the main take away of copyright law.
Whoever owns the copyright, has ultimate control of the work.
Now we come to the second big blunder from people not understanding work for hire (complaining it’s unfair). YES, you can enter an agreement with an artist that RETAINS copyright of the work, and structure all sorts of “deals.” You can add a license clause for anything… but at the end of the day, as I’ve written elsewhere, a contract is just a piece of paper.
They can be disputed.
They can be completely ignored.
No matter what a contract says;
Whoever owns the copyright, has ultimate control of the work.
So this leads us back to Work for Hire…
WFH means the artist engaged in the work relinquishes all rights to the work he’s creating. In other words, instead of getting that immediate and automatic copyright protection on the work, he’s passing that over to the person who’s paying him.
And that’s the main point of WFH.
The artist gets financially compensated to perform the work and “transfer” the copyright to the person paying them.
The main reason these posts float around from time-to-time, with folks complaining that WFH abuses artists, is because these folks don’t set their page rates properly in the first place.
Before all the artists reading this light up their torches and grab their pitchforks, realize, we writers sign WFH contracts all the time too.
The third misstep from people not understanding work for hire (complaining it’s unfair), is that 90% of the time, they are not publishers. That is to say, they are not looking at things from a publishing business standpoint.
They only look to the transaction from their point of view; as the person performing a work, trying to get compensated for it…
They imagine and worry about, someone going off and making a shit-ton of money with their work, without any further compensation to them.
They imagine and worry about, the person who hired them using their work in a manner they didn’t think of, making additional money they never considered.
This makes the people who complain about WFH, feel like they’ve been taken advantage of.
I’ve said this numerous times.
Business is all about mitigating risk.
When a publisher hires an artist (and the job is done and paid), what risk has the artist taken?
The artist got paid for their time! Like any job… anywhere.
And if they set their page rate properly, they were paid well for their time.
On the other hand, the publisher has taken all the risk, by paying the artist to create the work. Obviously, every publisher intends to use the work for something… and to recoup the cost and ideally, make a profit…
But what happens if the work never makes any money at all? The publisher took all the financial risk and lost everything.
And from a business standpoint, the risk isn’t just the value of the artists work itself… Oh no, the risk is multiplied by all the other risks/expenses connected to actually bringing that work to market. Which can be a multiplier of many, many factors!
A publisher pays an artist $5,000 for their illustration work on a single graphic novel. Then goes on to spend $50,000 to complete the project, pay for marketing, etc. To think that the artist, contributing 9% of project budget, should be able to dictate any restrictions on how his work is used, is kind of crazy. (And of course, when we say any kind of restrictions, we’re talking about the artist wanting more money for something.)
The fourth mistake from people not understanding work for hire (complaining it’s unfair), is that most of them have never actually gone through a copyright dispute of any kind.
All contract disputes suck, but copyright/ownership disputes double suck.
They always get ugly.
There is incredible value for making agreement as simple as possible. Even if an agreement leaves a little opportunity or money on the table (in some manner), to avoid a bad situation later, it is usually well worth it.
Engaging in WFH is Really Simple for All Parties Involved
I advise all artists to set their standard page rate (or base rate) for WFH contracts.
Charge enough that you HOPE your publisher uses your work in ways you never even thought of. Work from the mindset that if they’re wildly successful, they’ll come back and hire you more!
If you are not happy to be getting more and more gigs at your page rate, you’re undervaluing yourself.
Of course, this isn’t to say, you shouldn’t look for projects that have bonuses and perks beyond a flat page rate. Of course, these are the best projects! But thinking you should tie up rights, hiding them under your mattress, is the wrong approach.
As you gain experience and expertise in your craft, you’ll find two things take place.
First, your rate rises.
You begin to care less and less who’s using your work for what, when these folks are straight up paying your mortgage. That’s really nice of them to do.
Second, you gravitate toward your own work, where you own everything yourself… OR, projects where you own a percentage, or projects that come with really, really big perks.
When this starts to happen in your career, again, you really begin to care less and less about WFH rights on some little indie guy’s passion project about a robot chicken assassin.
Truth is, you probably won’t even pick up those projects anymore, because you’re into the bigger picture now. And arguing about rights to the robot chicken assassin project is just a waste of time.
Hey, wait, Nick! What about original characters!
Surely, developing original characters can’t be done under a WFH?!?!?
The fifth error from people not understanding work for hire (complaining it’s unfair), is that they throw all of comic development under the same umbrella.
In other words, when was the last time you saw an artist selling prints of every page to the 100 page graphic novel he illustrated for some guy? Never? Because there’s really no additional value in that?
Comic development is complex and covers a lot of grey area.
In effort to keep this article shorter, I’ll leave you with this advice on character design.
How long are you spending on the design?
Let this be your guide on whether or not you should defend your copyright.
Be honest with your cutoff point; your time, vs. the pay you’re receiving.
Is 5 hours, sketching a guy a few different ways worth a lifetime of arguing about who owns what?
Does 5 hours of sketching entitle you to a lifetime of royalties on some guy’s robot chicken assassin character?
Did you do in 5 hours, what someone else never could have done?
Answering these is above my pay grade, but not above yours.
It’s indie comics. Just be fair. Treat it like the grassroots industry it is, and not like you’re dealing with a bunch of dudes at JPMorgan Chase…
unless, you’re actually dealing with a bunch of dudes at JPMorgan Chase, then I says, have at it.▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases. Also, check out and go buy some stuff at Story To Script where the really crazy super advanced writing stuff lives.