Protecting A Cartoonist's Rights

By Ron Coleman

An area of concern to cartoonists is the rights he or she is selling and how to protect those rights. It was pointed out in an article on the website that when a freelancer sells to a publication he is not really "selling" it. The cartoonist is licensing his artwork. In most cases the cartoonist still owns the copyright and can continue to license it. In this article we will discuss the various rights a cartoonist will want to offer and the compensation he should expect in return.

Cartoonists frequently ask how they copyright their cartoons. Cartoons are automatically copyrighted when the artist creates them. What the artist has created belongs to him and there is no need to register it or fill out any forms. Registration will serve one purpose: if the matter is litigated, it helps to prove the artist created it and when.

When a publisher licenses your artwork, there are various licenses they request. According to, in the absence of a contract or any stated rights it is generally understood that you are selling first rights only. Here are some of the rights and what they mean:

All Rights - In this case the cartoonist actually gives up the copyright to his work to the publisher. This is one instance where the cartoonist does not have the right to continue marketing his own work. For this reason my recommendation would be that the cartoonist never offer these rights unless the publication pays very, very well. Highlights for Children , for example pays $60 and asks for all rights. The New Yorker , which is reported to pay $675 and up (much better) say they will not consider cartoons that have appeared elsewhere including websites. I don't know if this means they expect to own the copyright as well. Private Eye , a British publication say they keep publishing rights and artists need their permission to publish elsewhere. They pay 150 British pounds Woman's World says they pay $125 for "full rights". I don't know if they consider this the same as "all rights" or whether this means they are paying to use the cartoons in various ways such as in their printed publication, on their website, in promotional materials, and so forth.

First Rights - Sometimes referred to as First Serial Rights or First Publication Rights. This gives the publication the right to be the first to publish the cartoon, after which the copyright still belongs to the artist and he can continue to submit elsewhere. Sometimes these rights will specify one geographical area, such as First North American Serial Rights.

One-Time Rights - Also referred to as Simultaneous Rights. These rights allow the publication to publish the work in a single publication although the rights are non-exclusive. The artist can sell these rights to numerous publications, often at the same time. A good example of these rights is in syndicated comic strips which can appear in hundreds of different newspapers on the same day. These are the rights which are commonly offered to lower-paying publications as well.

Work For Hire - This is about the same as "All Rights". In this case the cartoonist is actually employed to create the cartoons, such as is the case when a cartoonist works for an animation studio. His salary is his compensation (although he might make a deal which gives him residual commissions as well). In these cases, the employer owns the copyright from the time the work is created.

These are the rights that will concern most cartoonists. Other rights could include reprint rights (which is about the same as one-time rights), electronic rights (which gives the publisher the right to be the first to publish the material on the internet, in emails, or other electronic outlets), motion picture and television rights, and so forth. In any instance where there is a question, the cartoonist should consider consulting a copyright attorney.

I think it is a good idea to always specify in a cover letter which rights you are offering. This prevents any disputes. Also in a case where you are offering first rights you might consider placing a time limit on those rights. For example, if you have created a cartoon which is very timely and related to recent news events, you want to have the right to sell it elsewhere if the editor rejects it and you can't afford to have an editor sitting on that cartoon for six months while he makes up his mind. Believe it or not I once had a publisher send back a batch of my cartoons rejected after he held them for eight years. I think it's very reasonable to indicate in a cover letter that the first rights you are offering are good for three months (or if the item is especially timely, one or two months) and that if the publication does not buy it in that time you reserve the right to submit it elsewhere. If that turns an editor against you and causes you to lose sales to them, in my opinion, that's okay, because that is not the best publication to do business with in the first place.

Further Reference Materials

The Business of Being An Artist

The Professional Cartoonist's Business Manual & Marketing Guide

The Legal Guide For Writers, Artists and Other Creative People

Copyright Law In A Nutshell

Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines

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