Making Money from Someone Else’s Art: dealing with Licensing and Intellectual Property Rights


So, you are now starting a business, and you want to be able to sell your work.  Thats great!  You have worked hard to get to the point where you feel competent enough and that your work is of a high standard, and now its time to start reaping the rewards.

Except…. that along the way to get to this point, you practiced by creating work based on characters you admired or were inspired by, and although you have undoubtedly also done some fine original work, you have discovered that the work people most want to buy is not something you actually own, but rather a reproduction you have done of a well-known character from a movie/tv show/comic or book.

Of course you realise that selling this piece is totally illegal and could get you into some serious trouble, but after all it was only one… or three… or fifteen… no harm done, right?

Wrong.

You could easily find yourself being sued if someone who actually owns the copyright on that character discovers you are making money off their work. And in the case of movie studios and tv production companies, the stakes are especially high. Can you afford to lose everything?

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So you decide to do the right thing. Admirable. Sensible. Plain common sense.  You want to approach the company or entity that owns the rights and do a deal for the right to produce your product.  You make money, you give them a bit, the customers are happy you’re happy, everyones happy, right?

Well, it isn’t totally impossible that on rare occasions it can be that easy, but to be brutally honest that is most likely to occur with people who have written or designed characters still in the early stages of popularity, cult figures with a niche market, who have not yet achieved a high mainstream profile for their own work, and are happy to have you help them along with a little more exposure.

If your chosen figure is part of a bigger stable of more famous characters, then I am afraid that you will rapidly discover most large companies are not going to be interested in granting reproduction rights to anyone unless they can a) control the quality and amount of product produced, and b) make a significant amount of money from it. 

So do you give up before you start? Or keep on selling work on the sly, based on an idea that belongs to someone else?  Not a good idea, because the more popular your work becomes, the greater your risk of getting caught and losing your livelihood altogether….

So you want to do the right thing but you don’t know how to go about it.  Here are a few pointers to get you started.

The best way to give yourself a higher chance of success in any potential business deal is the old “What’s in it for them?” question. 

Before you approach anyone, you need to have answers to the following questions, because this is what they are going to want to know: 

1. WHY should they grant rights to YOU, instead of a large established company specialising in merchandising, and with far-reaching multi-national distribution networks that are guaranteed to bring in a significant amount of publicity and goodwill for their franchise/character? Who are you, in business terms? What have you done before? How good are you? What guarantees can you offer on the quality and accuracy of your work?

2. What OTHER existing merchandising or reproduction rights has this company given away in the past and on other franchises/characters? Doing a little research on the companies that currently produce products under license, the size, scope and scale of the type of pieces involved, will give you a very good idea of your chances of success. Also, one of the biggest limitations will be whether existing licensing deals have granted EXCLUSIVE rights to any of these other manufacturers…. However, if their rights are ‘Limited’ then and only then, and after fulfilling the necessary criteria, you may have a potential chance of being granted permission to produce a very specific item in very specific conditions, that does not interfere with, compete with or detract from potential sales elsewhere.

3. WHO are your potential customers? Are they fans who can’t or won’t spend big dollars on ‘official’ merchandise? Or do they just want ‘art’ pieces that they see as more valuable and collectable than any that are currently available? 

4. HOW MANY products are you realistically likely to sell? 5? 50? 50,000? What profit margin could you realistically charge on these -10%? 40%? 200%? What is the top end price your customers would be willing to pay that would both give you a worthwhile income from the effort AND cover your obligations to the company? And given the possible potential sales you could expect, minus costs, including your own income and profit, HOW MUCH is the right to sell this product worth to you? $1000? $100,000? $1,000,000?

5. WHY should the company that owns the character care about your customers, and what benefit would the company get from those people you are planning on supplying your product to? Will those people become loyal advocates who will help them build the franchise/character to the next level? Or are they one-off interactions with no future potential? When a company sells the rights to a product to be handed out with fast-food meals, they are counting on getting a whole generation of kids hooked on their concept, to whom they can continue to on-sell for the next twenty years. A person who can be targeted for a lot of future sales is worth more to them than someone who will only ever buy, say, one or two pieces, and see every movie once, and maybe buy a dvd….. 

So after you have worked through all of these questions you should have a realistic idea of whether or not it is even worth your time and effort to go and approach the company that owns the rights in the first place. 

Now its true there is never any harm in asking, and if you don’t you will never know, but for the best chance of success in any business venture, I recommend you always put yourself in the shoes of the other person or business first.


If you were them, would YOU think your offer was a worthwhile one?

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