Commissioning and Licensing Images on deviantART: A Guide. Of Sorts.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve licensed and commissioned art from a number of people on deviantART, for various purposes. (Most notably, arguably, the cover of my first novel was licensed there.) It can be a fairly painless and rewarding process for everyone involved, if you know what you’re doing. Because the average novelist knows slightly less about image licensing than they do about fluid dynamics (apologies to any physicist-writers, diatribes on postcards to the usual address…), I thought I’d try to cover the basics of what to know, what to do, and what to expect, so you can benefit from my experience.

What deviantART Is, And Isn’t

deviantART (that’s the way they capitalize it, don’t look at me) isn’t a marketplace, the way Elance or Fiverr are. It’s a social media site, first and foremost – one with a worldwide community of artists. Lots and lots and lots of artists. While there’s a staggering quantity of fanart, especially for anime and manga, there are folks on there who do pretty much everything that’s remotely creative. I’m pretty much only interested in still art, as my primary goal is to acquire or license images to illustrate books, and it’s a bit tricky to use a knitted hat as the cover of a book, no matter how nice the hat is.

Because it’s a social media site above all else, there’s no uniform method for conducting business on deviantART, unlike Fiverr or Elance. This is a blessing and a curse – mostly a curse. The biggest issue I’ve run into is that there’s no standard, default, or even suggested licensing term for art, and most artists have only the vaguest notion how licensing works in the real world. So, generally the burden is on you to simultaneously educate and negotiate, which can be tricky when you aren’t sure what you’re doing.

What Artists Want, Or Think They Want

You might think that most dA artists want money for their work, and that’s generally true. In a more fundamental sense, my experience is that many of them mostly want not to be exploited – to not have their art used without permission or credit, and not in ways which negatively affect their future business and artistic potential. There seems to be this belief that commercial licenses are draconian rights-grabs designed to screw artists over. Maybe there really are people going around offering extremely restrictive license terms – “ARTIST assigns to Global Megacorp Inc full and complete perpetual and exclusive rights to the IMAGE and all variations, derivations, alterations, adjustments, reinterpretations, or visually or thematically similar works…” – but I dare say that’s got to be very much the exception, not the rule.

Many artists on dA publish price lists for commissions, but you really need to read the fine print, which all too often isn’t easy to find; for many the published prices are for art “for personal use only”, with commercial use expressly prohibited. It’s very easy to get annoyed by this – if you pay someone to do a painting for you, you should get (at least) nonexclusive rights… right? – but you have to kind of understand this in the context of deviantART: A lot of the commissions on dA are fanart of copyrighted characters, which the artists generally can’t legally sell commercial rights to anyway. When you’re commissioning art of your own characters, this shouldn’t be an issue, of course – you have the rights to use your own characters’ likenesses. Presumably.

Many artists charge an, often negotiable, extra amount for commercial usage. It’s reasonable, in the context of dA, and usually isn’t too onerous. I doubt there’s any kind of standard, but I’ve had pretty good luck negotiating $10 for perpetual nonexclusive rights, with attribution, and some folks have quoted me lower fees, in the $4-8 range. Keep in mind, I always make clear that I want to use it in/on a self-published book of mine, which might well affect folks’ negotiations. I like to think that if I said I wanted their art for a $4M nationwide advertising campaign, they’d hold out for a little bit more…

Be warned: some artists will try to negotiate for commercial rights on a royalty basis. I try not to do this, ever, both because it’s an incredible headache, and because my books sell so few copies either the artist would get screwed on overall royalties, or I’d get screwed on the per-copy rate. (A typical novella of mine might sell 40-50 copies a year, at $0.99. I make around $0.35 per copy – so $14-18 per year. Even if I gave the cover artist a whopping 10% of my royalties, they’d be getting absolute peanuts. If I hoped I might sell a lot of books, I might be willing to negotiate a flat per-copy rate, but then things get complicated – does it apply to free copies given away, and so on? And either way, you need to work out payment schedules, and some kind of clause about what happens if the artist disappears and you’re unable to send them their royalties, somewhere down the road…) Basic rule of thumb: royalties are much more trouble than they’re worth.

What You, Presumably, Want, and Need

It’s easy to get all bogged down in twenty-page lawyer-approved contracts for commissioning or licensing art, but it’s not always necessary, it’s not always beneficial (to anyone), and for overseas artists who don’t necessarily have the best English skills, it can be somewhere between terrifying and completely off-putting – doubly so if they, like most artists, don’t have any idea how rights licensing normally works, anyway. Usually you’re a lot better off just coming to a simple agreement on what you can and cannot do.

At a minimum, as a writer (I assume), you want and need the right to use a piece of art on and/or in your book/e-book/e-zine/whatever. This is the part where the anal-retentive legal types want to start bandying around terms like “nonexclusive perpetual worldwide print and e-book cover rights”, but there are generally five ways you can go about this:

1. All rights. Also known as “work-for-hire”. You give the artist money, the artist gives you complete and exclusive ownership of the image and all rights thereto. (This is the standard license for work contracted on Fiverr, incidentally.) It’s simple and straightforward.

2. All nonexclusive rights. You get all rights to use the artwork, non-transferable, and can do whatever you want with it – but so can the artist. Arguably the next-best-thing to work-for-hire, since you can do anything you need to with the image, but the artist can still display it on their website, which is extremely important to many of them. (If the image contains your characters – i.e. your intellectual property – that’s about all they can do with it, but being able to show off their work is important. If you’re negotiating for rights to a piece they produced not specifically for you, this option is comparable to many typical royalty-free stock licenses.)

3. Specific named rights. You and the artist agree that you get, say, “exclusive worldwide print and e-book cover rights through January 2016″, and they retain all other rights. Pleases the lawyer types, but can lead to confusion down the road, and the need to re-license for supplemental uses, like on a website.

4. Implicit rights by context. You and the artist agree that you get to use the art in whatever way you like, within a specific context – “I want to use this image on the cover of, and to otherwise promote, my book”. Simple and easy to understand, and pretty much a win-win for everyone.

5. The Gentleman’s Agreement. What happens when you deal with dA artists who know little or nothing about copyright and licensing. You pay them, they permit you “commercial use”, they’re happy, you’re probably covered legally. Copyright lawyers may cringe, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Like I said before, artists on dA basically seem not to want to be taken advantage of, for whatever value of that which might apply. Many, in my experience, are happy to grant nonexclusive, implicit, or “commercial use” rights for $10 or so, for art you commission. If you’re trying to license work they’ve already done, their expectations can vary wildly, but you can almost always negotiate quite a bit. The easiest way is perhaps to relinquish, frankly, rights you’re never going to use or need. They want more than you’re comfortable with for perpetual worldwide cover rights? See what they’ll take for English-language cover rights for ten years. For most self-published books, they’re functionally identical, but the latter sounds much less broad, and thus (hopefully) much less expensive. Trying to negotiate all rights to a commissioned painting, non-exclusively? You might well be safe giving up broadcast media rights, stationery/poster/postcard rights, clothing and apparel rights, and anything else you can think of that sounds lucrative but is useless to you.

A Quick Note On Money

Some (very, very good) artists on deviantART do commissioned work for what seem like extremely low rates. Some of them are kids, yes, looking for a little extra money and an opportunity to flex their artistic muscles. Some are college students, or even working professionals, basically making a living from their art. It’s easy to look at some of these folks and be befuddled by their rates. There’s no way they can work that cheap!

Yes, there is a way. deviantART is a global community, and, well, the cost of living in some parts of the world is a lot lower than in the US, UK, or elsewhere. 15 USD a day is a pretty good wage in a lot of the world; if you pay someone $60 to do a full-color painting to your specs, and it takes them twenty or thirty hours, that’s not necessarily a bad deal for them, by any means. Yay for the internet, and PayPal.

And on that note, it’s probably wise to confirm early on how you’re going to pay any given artist. Believe it or not, not everyone in the world has, or even can have, PayPal, so some folks might want a transfer via Western Union, or something like that, which will incur extra fees for you.

Oh – most artists will want prepayment, at least in part, for commissions. That’s pretty normal; they’re just trying to protect themselves.

What Artists NEED From You

If you’re trying to commission an artist on dA, they’re (hopefully!) going to need a bunch of information from you, which you’ll probably need to provide in two parts.

The first is a technical description of what you want, and when you want it, to which they will agree, and quote a price. The exact details will vary by what you’re trying to commission and who you’re trying to commission it from, obviously, but it might go something like “I’d like to commission you to do a watercolor painting of one person, from the waist-up, in an art style similar to the piece in your gallery called ‘Untitled No. 219′, with a reasonably simple background, for commercial use on the cover of a self-published e-book, to be delivered as a .png file at least 1500 pixels wide by July 1st.”

They’ll quote you a price and tell you how to pay and so on, generally, and then they’ll want the full artistic details of what you want. Again, this will vary, but you’re going to want to cover everything they need to know. For instance, “A vertical image of a slightly stocky twenty-something woman with curly shoulder-length chestnut hair, hazel eyes, and smallpox scars on her nose and chin, wearing a plain sort of milkmaid’s dress, holding a wilting nosegay of white roses to her chest, staring off to one side, into the distance, with a slight smile on her face; a rough background of rolling grassy, rocky hills behind her. The top third of the image should be clear blue sky.” is probably a pretty good start.

They will probably hit you up with at least a couple of queries at that point – what’s the person’s hairstyle, what do you mean by milkmaid’s dress, is she wearing any jewelery or gloves or a belt, how severe of smallpox scarring did you have in mind, exactly – and then you probably won’t hear anything from them for a few days. This is pretty much normal; you’re paying them to make art to spec, not to blog for you. One day, eventually, you’ll hopefully receive a rough sketch of the composition in your inbox, which you should review and comment on. The sketch stage is the time to be making changes, so make sure you’re happy with what they’ve done at that point. They really do want your comments and questions and suggestions at this point, because it’s a thousand times easier to fix things you don’t like here than later on.

Depending on their art and work style, you might see a couple sketch revisions, and then probably a final, reasonably clean outline for your approval, which should pretty much be a formality. At that point, you’ll wait a while while they do the fiddly artistic bits, and eventually they’ll likely send you a lower-resolution proof of the final, finished image. Generally there’s not a lot of changes that can be made at this point, though digital artists can usually adjust colors – “Oh, I thought you meant grey eyes, oops” – without too much difficulty, and contrast adjustments and other Photoshop stuff is always a possibility. If you’ve paid them in full, they’ll send you whatever it is you agreed upon. Congratulations, you’ve successfully negotiated the chaotic and confusing realm of licensing images on deviantART. :)

Published in: Geekiness, General | on January 12th, 2012| No Comments »

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