Saturday, January 3, 2015

Want To Buy Some Free Art?

Want To Buy Some Free Art?
A Brief Primer on Protecting Artistic Intellectual Property

William O’Connor

About ten years ago as the trend in fantasy art began to change, with a paradigm shift in supply and demand I joked to a colleague, "At this rate we'll need to pay our clients to publish our work."   Today I trawl through DeviantArt, ConceptArt, IBA, DigitalArt, ImagineFX, Expose, ArtOrder, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and a sea of other venues and I’m constantly amazed at how much work is done on spec and given away for reuse for free! 

I understand that you need to show examples of your work and a portfolio, and I also understand that you need to have an online footprint, and create a "Brand",  but as a rule of thumb, I have a NonDisclosure Agreement with myself.  I don't work on other people's projects for free.  I'm weird like that I guess, I actually expect to be paid for my work.  I  have projects in development that go back to the nineties that I have never shown anyone.  Some I’ve sold or optioned to companies, others are still sitting in folders on my desktop waiting to be fleshed out, or as notes in a book, but they don’t get given away for free.  Recently, I submitted a proposal to a company and they passed.  However, they asked if I had anything else to show them in a different subject. Sure enough, I had a germ of an idea kicking around from the aughts that just might work, just some concept sketches and an elevator pitch, but enough to show them.  They liked it, and their first question was, “Have you shown this to anyone else?” On  that alone, they optioned the concept sight unseen!  They paid me NOT to show it to anyone else!

This is what in the publishing and other industries is referred to to as a non-simultaneous submission.  If you have already shown a project to a competitor or released the material in any other form, they want to know because it seriously curtails the exclusive value of the property.  Having shopped several books and properties throughout my career, its just a simple practice that I try to keep to.  Between sharing and linking and liking an image a painting may be disseminated to hundreds of thousands of views and dozens of other peoples’ websites without ever having to pay you anything.  Additionally, many of these sites have annuals or compendiums where they publish the work into a book, and also don't pay you.  When I first started out in the early nineties I remember Spectrum couldn't get artists to submit their work because they weren't paying a usage fee!  Today, you think- “That’s good! its free exposure!” but how much is too much free exposure?  Is there Bad Exposure?  When do you expect to get paid?   If you are working as a hobbiest or enthusiast, its fine, but as a business person, this is a job, that you've been trained to do, and it needs to be profitable and you need to be professional.

The massive influx of new millenial artists into the Fantasy genre from all over the world has created an entirely new industry in just the past few years.   There is so much art being made by so many artists that every year more entities are reproducing free artwork as a business model acting as promoters, brokers, representatives, directors, gallery owners, advocates, agents and clients for fantasy artists, all promising valuable exposure.

This all doesn’t mean  that some of these venues can't make for excellent exposure, and that you shouldn't submit your work for annuals and on-line forums, but you need to calculate what that exposure is worth, and are you getting a return on investment for it?  Likes and shares and awards are nice, but are they turning into sales for the artist? As more and more websites, annuals, contests and shows come into business it creates greater competition and more ability for artists to select which venues are best.  Eventually the new supply and demand dynamic will reach a tipping point where there are too many forums and not enough artists, and not enough viewers to support all the publications.  Choosing a forum is important, (same as for actors and writers)  you want to be represented by a selective high quality group so that your work is shown in the best light.  Remember, they need you more than you need them.  Without you, they don't have a product.  Personally I recommend  Society of Illustrators and Spectrum.  They are continually committed to high quality art, and represent the best talent in the industry. 

In the long run you need to protect your artwork and your ideas!  You need to balance online exposure with non-disclosure, because nobody is going to buy something they can get online for free, and no one is going to want five annuals coming out every year filled with all the same art.  You need to examine the long term business model you're using and figure out whether it is sustainable as a profitable plan.  For instance, if you own a restaurant,  giving away free samples is fine, and good for business, but if you're giving away more than you sell, you can't stay in business long.

The best way to protect yourself is to selectively share your content.  When developing, or pitching a business proposal or project idea it has to be made clear with whomever you share the work with, that you own the copyright and trademark to all the ideas and concepts in the project, and that sharing or disseminating the information is illegal.  Selective sharing limits the number of people who see the idea so if the idea does get stolen, it is documented who you shared the idea with, and they can be found copiable of copyright theft and trademark infringement.  If you share your idea publicly with the entire planet online, your “expectation of privacy” is gone, its free for the taking.  Basically, a non-disclosure agreement with anyone you share the idea with should be a minimum starting point.

Its a big scary online world out there, and young artists are constantly being scammed by online-predators.  You need to be careful.  Ultimately, abstinence is the only sure way not to get in trouble, but when you really need to share, be sure to use protection, especially if they say they love you! 

Go Forth and Learn.



  1. I’ve actually had companies come to me, link me to a Kickstarter project, and say, “We want it to look like this and we need to get our product out before this goes live!”
    I'm curious -- how does one properly respond?

  2. Make your client aware that there is another concept that is similar to the best of your knowledge, and create a variant on the concept. I've actually presented my concerns to clients and they have told me, "Don''t worry, they all look the same.".. Elves look like elves; dwarves look like dwarves....there are no original concepts. Best advice is to not look at what other artists are creating!

  3. Thank you for this article William. It really has brought up some interesting issues that I have been considering for my own art this year. I have been considering not entering paid online art competitions and art annuals. I have not been successful in either and have found that I have lost more money than made any money. So this year I will focus on getting better at my art, I may still work on projects based on these art competitions, but I won't submit to them. Thank you again for this article.

  4. Exposure is good, and getting your brand out is important, but you need to be strategic about it. Juried shows and annuals can be successful, but you need to be selective. I like Spectrum and The Society of Illustrators. They are synonomous with high quality work, and being in them is always a positive. Paying fees to take part in an online art challenge just sounds like a scam. The fact is that there are so many young artists that want to work that a whole new industry has arisen in the past decade, of workshops, challenges, art sites etc, that make vast promises of online exposure for a fee. Just be wary which ones are good and which ones just want your money.

  5. Finally, someone understands! Now, I am sure many older generation artists understand, but nowadays it feels like I'm alone in this aspect, especially for my age. I am 25 so for sure in the generation where everyone just hands out their secrets and it's officially the 'norm' to be "generous and super-outgoing".
    I can be about as generous as a hoarding dragon with sharing my unposted work, but I do post quite a lot of my stuff on dA (9 years already). However, the last 2 years I have been encouraging any of my followers I have to see my latest work I do for an event in person, (with smaller crops to hint at the art, but hide the main feature) at the event--and I won't post it fully till the event ends.

    As for online contest however, I enter them sometimes, but honestly I never feel it is noticed anyway among the sea of seasoned pros who take over every dA community contest possible and make it really not fun at all anymore :( ....but man, what artist fan of square enix can resist getting a critique from a square enix concept artist? totally lost that contest too, but I was dreaming of winning lol.

    To be honest though, I never really thought about the companies themselves stealing ideas....they had one recently on dA where your character becomes part of it, and while you do get money and other nice big prizes, of course it does help them make money off it themselves.........but if you are still young and feel rather poor, it's so hard to resist the funds....especially if you come from a low income family.

    1. Thanks Angela- I don't want people to not share and promote themselves, just don't give it all away for free! Your idea of only teasing with crops and pieces of the artwork is a nice technique..I may steal that! ;-)

    2. This sort of idea taking is fine by me, lol....hopefully it will teach people to respect supporting the organization and paying their own way-----people won't attend events as much if there are photos of everything---just enough to get them feeling it's worth the admission :P.

      I have to admit though, when it comes to asking for funds for a project, it is really quite hard I bet since people want as much details as possible before committing money into a project if they aren't sure how committed the team is their promises.

  6. Good morning!

    I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on Kickstarting and other crowdfunding avenues used by artists and developers, especially since I've seen so many illustrators use the mediums to fund projects such as getting their books printed. My question is how can an artist present enough information to entice potential backers (I mean, that need to know what they're being asked to chip money towards) without giving away the whole farm? It's a delicate line between ensuring that backers won't feel scammed, and not feeding the hawks ready to make off with what you have before you know what hits you. I'd like to know how you would approach it, please.

  7. Langi- That's an excellent question and is at the heart of my article. How much do you share to create public interest, vs. how much is too much where the value of the concept is diminished? The answer is that I don't know, and I personally err on the side of showing less.
    I think Kickstarter is an excellent format for individuals to self publish, and I honestly think that in another ten years, this will be the dominate model for creative properties. I have never done a kickstarter project myself, but know many people who have. For every one success story I know a hundred that failed. Its a business. Like any business there is risk. Like any creative business, there is usually a marketing and branding plan laid out well in advance about release dates, and when teasers and material will be leaked to create buzz. As a business, that's something you'll have to decide. Too early, and the excitement wears off before the release and there's time for competitor to change their product schedule in reaction. Too late, there's not enough time to create public interest. Its a balancing game, I would ask a professional branding manager what her thoughts are. Good Luck!