In my presentations at comic book conventions, I stress the importance of contracts. I’ve written about it before here, and I’ve tackled it more in-depth in my soon-to-be-released book. Even so, it is an important topic for all creators to understand, particularly when it comes to their publishing contracts.
I just finished writing a series (part 1 starts here) covering the battle between Siegel & Shuster and DC Comics over the rights to Superman. Siegel & Shuster granted all of the rights they had in Superman to DC Comics. They spent decades trying to regain some of those rights, and they had little success doing so. Their plight inspired the creator’s rights movement that gained steam in the ’70s and ’80s, and in my opinion, culminated with the formation of Image Comics. The main tenet of the creator’s rights movement is the belief creators should own all of the rights to the characters they create. This is a gross simplification of a longer, more nuanced discussion, but it will suffice for my purposes below.
The reason I bring up the battle over creator’s rights is because I’m noticing a trend in some of the publishing agreements I’ve run across from smaller publishers. Publishing agreements used to be just what their name implied, an agreement to publish comic books. In the era I mentioned above, sometimes the larger publishers would want to purchase your characters. Other times, a creator would be working under a work made for hire agreement where the publisher would own all new creations. Either way, creators were not always realizing the full value for the characters they created.
These days, I’ve been noticing some publishers are also attempting to get exclusive rights to creator’s media rights in the publishing agreement. In addition to publishing your comic book, they also want to be involved, either directly or as an agent, in the development of your comic book into other forms of media, such as film or television. While most of the agreements acknowledge the creator as the owner of the property, these agreements are trying to lock-in long-term media rights deals to the benefit of the publisher. Deals like this would render the creator’s rights meaningless and guarantee the publisher a cut of any future media deals.
I understand publishers attempting to get these additional rights. They need to make money, and the publishing industry isn’t as lucrative as it used to be. However, it is important for creators to pay attention to the rights they are granting to the publisher.
The rights you possess as the creator of a work are vast and valuable. These rights can also be broken down into different segments, each having value. For example, you can have one publisher print and distribute your books in the United States and use a different publisher in Europe. You have just divided your publishing rights and restricted it by different territories. Theoretically, you can do this numerous times in multiple countries if you draft your contracts well, assuming someone is willing to pay you for those rights.
Ideally, you should separate your rights into numerous segments to increase your possible earnings. This includes separating the publishing rights to your creation from the media rights. It is usually in your best interest to do so. If you can avoid it, do not sign one agreement granting one party all of your rights. Try to keep your publishing agreement separate from your media rights deal. If you do want to work with one party, at least keep those agreements separate.
Make sure to pay close attention to (i) how long these agreements last, (ii) whether or not they’re exclusive, and (iii) how you can get out of them if the publisher or developer is not making you happy. The publishing agreement and media rights agreement don’t need to mirror each other, but it doesn’t hurt. If you do not see clear answers to the questions posed above and you can’t get it changed, you might want to rethink if you want to do business with that publisher.
When you’re starting out and someone wants to publish your comic book, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement. Take your time and figure out if the deal is right for you. If you pass on it, something else will likely come along. If you make a bad deal, you might not be able to end the relationship, or worse – recover your rights.