Saturday, January 7, 2012


I'm writing this post for the benefit of Sheridan animation students and grads, but it may prove useful to others.

If you are not on salary or working under a contract and somebody asks you to produce some art or animation, here are the things you need to know in writing before you start work.

  • How much will you be paid and what is the payment schedule?
  • Are there royalties or other compensation you are entitled to in the future?
  • What are the specifics of the work you are providing?
  • What format are you delivering the work in?
  • When is the work due?

Then there is the question of rights. What exactly are you selling in exchange for the money?

  • Are you selling the work outright?
  • Are you selling the work only for a specific use?
  • Are you selling the work for a limited amount of time?
  • Is the sale for exclusive or non-exclusive rights to use the work?
  • Will the artist get screen credit or be allowed to sign the work?

If the client provides this information in a written document, you have the right to ask for changes to anything that is specified. The client has the right to say no, but so do you. An agreement implies that both parties (the client and the artist) see eye to eye on conditions under which the work will be produced.

You also have the right to consult a lawyer, agent or other professional on the agreement before signing it.

There is a tendency for artists to be so thrilled that somebody wants their work that they skip all of the above or worse, they agree to work on spec. Spec work, (work done on speculation), means that the artist produces work for a client with no promise of payment. There are also cases where a client promises no money but offers the benefit of experience or exposure.

There is a word that describes working for free: slavery. Slavery can only occur through force, which we have not yet sunk to in North America, or complicity, where the artist agrees to be a slave.

There are occasions where artists may choose to work for free. Work gets donated to a charity or done to help a friend or family member. But if a profit making company is asking for artwork, they should pay for it and all of the above conditions should be met.

Please note that the above is different from pitching. In that case, you are creating the artwork for yourself and hope to interest a buyer in it. If no payment is forthcoming, you are free to take that artwork elsewhere to try to market it. Doing free work for yourself is different than doing free work at the request of a profit-making company.

I'm going to talk about two instances that I've been consulted on in the recent past. I have to be vague so as not to break any confidences.

In the first case, a distributor was interested in a student film made by a Sheridan graduate. The distributor wanted non-exclusive theatrical rights and exclusive rights for DVD, TV, internet and merchandising. In exchange for these rights, the distributor was willing to pay $50. I told the grad that for the low fee, none of the rights should be exclusive. If the grad had the opportunity to sell the film again in any market, he should be able to do it. The student asked for changes to the contract and the rights were made non-exclusive.

In the second case, a Sheridan grad was commissioned by a company to produce a film for a fee. When the film was delivered, the grad was told that the person who commissioned the film didn't have authorization to do it. The company was sorry and felt bad about it, but could only offer the grad half the agreed upon fee as a gesture of good will. The grad asked me for advice. I warned the grad that if she made a fuss, there was a chance that the company would refuse all payment. The grad wanted to proceed anyway, so I counseled the grad to tell them that she had an email from a company employee and she looked upon that as a contract. If there was a problem, it was between the company and the employee, not the company and her. If they didn't pay her in full, she would publicize the fact that the company had ripped her off and would warn other artists not to do work for the company. Furthermore, if the company didn't pay the full fee and used the work, she would sue the company for copyright infringement.

The company responded that they regretted her aggressive tone. This is known as blaming the victim. However, they did agree to pay the full fee.

There is no shortage of companies looking to take advantage of young artists. It is important to understand the proper way to do business, demanding a signed, written agreement that covers the payment, the rights, the deadline and the deliverables before the artwork is created. Your art and your time are what you are selling as a professional. If you work for free or don't proceed in a professional manner, you are merely a hobbyist and you are hurting people who are professionals.

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