The status on corporate comics

The discussion of Disney and its licensees treatment of Don Rosa, raised in Rosa’s discussion of why he left, has spread out to a larger discussion of non-creator-owned comics and how creators are treated. What I’m running down here is largely what is standard in the industry, at least as by my ability to perceive it through my limited experiences and from my discussion with other creators. All of these have exceptions, both to the advantage and disadvantage of creators, in some case due to the specific company involved, in some cases due to the negotiation strength of an individual creator.

Corporate-owned properties

By this, I mean work done on characters like Batman, where the company publishing the material also owns the copyright and trademarks to the character.

  • The publisher claims copyright to the finished work.
  • All sales of English-language editions count toward possible royalties to the creative team.
  • Licenses of foreign-language edition do not generate money to the creative team.
  • New characters/concepts do not generate money for creators when used in other comic book stories (i.e., if you give Mucuswoman a sidekick, Mucuslad, you don’t get money when Mucuslad spins off into his own series.)
  • Payments are made to creators when new characters/concepts are used outside of comics – that Mucuslad action figure or his appearance in the Sidekick Crew animated series will make the creator some cash.

Licensed properties

These are characters where a licensor owns the property, and the publisher is a licensee, paying money for the right to use that property. Examples are Conan, GI Joe, Garfield.

  • The licensor holds the copyright to the material.
  • Publishers are split as to whether the material generates royalties for creators when reprinted by the original publisher in English during their original run of the license.
  • Licenses of foreign-language edition do not generate money to the creative team.
  • New characters/concepts do not generate money for creators when reused anywhere.
  • No royalties are generated for the creators when the material is reprinted by a different publisher.

This isn’t to say that the Disney situation doesn’t go well outside of what is common. One is their insistence on owning up the original art. Return of the original art not only provides a potential additional income but also adjusts in value with the quality and popularity of the work. And the extensive use of Rosa to do signings promoting work, generating additional sales on works that he wasn’t getting additional money for.

There are some practical reasons why licensors want to work the way they do that go just beyond maximizing profits. Unlike with corporate comics, the licensor never has a direct relationship with the creative crew, which makes setting up ongoing interest harder. And with most licensed comics, comics are a minor sidelight to some more major product, and it isn’t worth the hassle of worrying whether some small character in a comic book story seems similar to one in the latest tentpole movie and thus some creator is expecting payment; that’s a different situation where comics are the primary or source product, and where it’s in the rightsholder’s interest to encourage originality.

But the net effect can be, well, Don Rosa – who is not a miserable man, who seems to have still surrounded himself with a life he loves, but whose work contributed enough to the licensor that he deserves appropriate forms of respect directly from them.

I am both a comics creator and publisher, and even before I entered that dual role, I was a bit more ethically comfortable with some aspects of work-for-hire than the more vocal of my creative brethren. But even setting ethics totally aside, as a practical business matter, it’s in a licensor’s best interest to find ways of ensuring that creators are rewarded for quality work, because in the long term that work is more licensable and thus more profitable. Few creators are Don Rosa, only willing to work on a single property. You don’t want a creator turning down work on a licensed book or leaving an acclaimed licensed run simply because the corporate comic will make him money if reprinted 20 years later while the licensed comic will not. If you want great work rather than bulk work, you should find some way to reward quality.

Published in: on February 12, 2013 at 6:04 am  Leave a Comment  

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