The question “should I sign?” is one of the most pressing faced by artists. Our legal system allows people to form contracts that bind them to do just about anything, making signing scary, as the wrong contract can cost an artist money or control over their work. This post will explain the fundamental issues of what happens when one signs an agreement to transfer some or all rights in an artistic work.
Copyright, like all intellectual property, can be in more than one place at a time, leading to long and complicated agreements about who owns what. Further complicating the matter is the fact that copyright is a bundle of rights (right to make copies, right to make derivative work, right to distribute, right to perform, right to display, right to transmit) and each right can be transferred independent of the others. The two most common agreements involving copyright are assignments and licenses.
An assignment is like a sale, the copyright no longer belongs to the artist. During the life of the assignment, the owner may do whatever she wishes with the work. Assignments may be granted for all rights or just for some. A rapper could assign performance rights to a piece of music to a single act, while retaining the right to copy and distribute the underlying music and lyrics for himself. Assignments may also be for limited periods of time, limited uses, or conditioned on anything the two sides agree to.
A license is more like renting, it gives permission to use a copyrighted work for specific purposes for a certain period of time. Licenses may be exclusive to one user or non-exclusive, allowing the copyright holder to give permission to as many people as they choose. Returning to our rapper from before, instead of assigning the performance right to a single act, he could license the non-exclusive right of performance to ten. While retaining the underlying rights to the background music track, he could license the right to create piano sheet music adaptations. The rapper could even license his most memorable song to a car company so hamsters could jam to it, all the while retaining his right to sell the original album on iTunes. Doo-Da-Dippity!
The combinations of what can be accomplished through assignments and licenses is limited only by the possible uses of a particular field of art and a few protections written into the copyright code. One protection is the right of the original artist to reclaim the copyright 35 years after assignment. This is done to give successful artists the chance to reclaim their early work that may have been signed away in the haste of youth. The children of deceased comic artist Jack Kirby are currently trying to reclaim the rights to characters he created while working for Marvel comics in the 1960s and 1970s. The outcome will turn on what the nature of Kirby’s “while working” was. If Kirby was a freelancer or he created the characters and them brought them to Marvel, he may reclaim the copyright. If he was employed by Marvel in a work-for-hire capacity, as I noted in my previous post, then everything he thought up for Marvel belongs to Marvel.
At one point in the late 1980s, the video game Tetris was subject to at least five assignment or license agreements. Nintendo brought the game to it’s Gameboy handheld system because it negotiated with the proper people, the Communist Soviet Government, rather that the man who invented the game, or his department head, as other tried to do. Because of messes like this, companies will require an artist guarantee they are the true owner of the copyright and the deal won’t go sour later because the person signing the deal didn’t have the right to.
The idea of “optioning” a script or book is often misunderstood. An option contact is an agreement by an author to keep their work “off the market” for a period of time to allow the producer time to put together financing or work out other details around a project. A screenplay or book may be optioned for as little as one dollar and guarantee only that the author won’t sell the work to anyone else for the next six months. That’s it. Unless a script is later bought by assignment or licensed for use, the option is worth only the original payment and the buyer holds no right to use the work.
None of this answers the critical question “should I sign?” because the answer to that depends on an artist’s goal for his or her work and career. The basic thing to remember when signing an agreement is that you will be balancing money and control. The more control you give, the more you should be paid. The more control you retain, the less money you will receive. Young artists often have to give control of their art and careers away for the financial backing studios and labels provide. The money people aren’t necessarily being greedy by retaining most of the profits; they are the ones who took the initial financial risk and bear the losses if money isn’t made.
Lawyers can be very useful in understanding what specifically you’re being asked to sign away and what you’ll be getting in return. Lawyers often know of different ways for you to achieve your goals and different industry standards.