A work for hire (WFH) is an agreement where you offer your creative services to intellectual property that you do not own in exchange for a fee.
A license is an agreement where you give someone else the right to distribute your intellectual property in exchange for various types of payments.
WFH: You are an artist. Marvel Comics hires you to draw an issue of Spider-Man. You do the pencils. They give you money. You walk away. You don’t own Spider-Man. You don’t even own the pages you created. Your name will appear as the artist, but that’s as far as it goes. This is pure mercenary work.
Creator Owned License: You are an artist. You have an idea for a new story. Dark Horse likes it and gives you a CO deal. You create the book. You might even eat the cost of creation. They sell the book. You get a cut, they get a cut. When you walk away, you walk away with the property. You can do whatever you want with it because you own it.
Frank Miller offers one of the best examples of the difference between these two types of deals. In 1986, Miller signed on with DC to release the Dark Knight Returns. That book reanimated the Batman franchise, solidified a darker vision of comics across the board and was instrumental in redefining the genre of super hero movies. But at no point could Miller claim to own Batman. He had no rights to any of the subsequent film, video game or merchandise revenue that came out of the Batman property. To the best of my knowledge, he got a page rate and he got credit for doing the work. That’s it.
Actually, that’s not it. Because he got so much exposure and critical acclaim for the work he did on Batman (as well as other properties) it was much easier for him to land creator owned deals later on. Frank Miller owns most if not all of the Sin City and 300 franchises. He had major input, control and license fees from those books and subsequent films. That was money he was entitled to because he owned the rights to that intellectual property.
There are several successful writers and artists who have done work for hire deals first to establish themselves in the industry and then done creator owned deals once they had the right leverage. Many of them jump back and forth from one type of deal to the other depending on the project. Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Greg Rucka are all good examples of this. I’m not suggesting that an artist should never sign a WFH. I am suggesting that you need to know the difference between the two and make sure you are not signing a WFH for your own property because then you are signing away all your rights for little or no money.
And keep in mind, just because a contract says Creator Owned Agreement or License Agreement on the top doesn’t make it a creator owned agreement. It is the language in the agreement and the way the rights are divided that is the key to the contract. When you analyze your agreements (or ask me to do it) always keep in mind who has control over the property. This will be vital when your idea becomes a movie.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE A LICENSEING OR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY ISSUE, DISCUSS IT WITH YOUR LEGAL ADVISOR OR CONTACT C3 AT firstname.lastname@example.org FOR A FREE CONSULTATION.