One of the thorny issues facing any Modern Creative is that of Creator Rights. Will your interests be looked after if your work is a success, or will others reap the benefits of your talent? Writer Russell Payne looks into some of the pitfalls.
It’s one thing to be successfully creative, it’s another thing entirely to be financially successful. Are the two mutually exclusive? Often they are, but they don’t have to be.
Which though, is more important to you? Financial recognition or creative recognition? Your attitude regarding this will affect your work, and how you deal with the people you work for.
With the age of crowd sourcing upon us, maybe the future is self-publishing. Maybe we’ll see a world where you can pay an artist direct for work you enjoy. Places like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are beginning to make a difference, but making a living as an artist is still a struggle uphill, an unusually steep hill, and the hill is covered in broken glass, and you’re naked.
Far too often the creative force behind successful ideas isn’t the person who sees the financial payback. Unfortunately when you are a naïve, wide eyed newcomer just wanting to get your babies released into the free world, the last thing you worry about is the small print, you’re just happy someone gives you some page, wall or web space to display your creations. You see anyone who encourages you as a benevolent benefactor, a kindly uncle acting as a patron of the arts and believing in you because of how completely awesome you are. This can sometimes be the case, in very rare cases or in the depths of your imagination maybe, but generally it isn’t, people may invest in you because you are good at what you do, but it’s really your potential for making them money that is the motivating factor. You are a financial investment not an artistic folly.
The grim reality is, many of the people actually running the commercial and sometimes non-commercial creative industries are in it for the money, not the love of good art. Never forget that, or they will rip you off, and continue ripping you off and feeding on the carcass of your ideas for the rest of their natural lives. The people paying you are probably businessmen of some sort or another, they may be greedy, without any ethical framework you’d recognise as such, and many of them wouldn’t recognise morality even if it had just been introduced to them in a formal setting in slow, distinct tones and was wearing a name badge that clearly said, “Hi! My name is MORALITY”.
That’s why it’s not the people who come up with the best ideas that end up seeing the dividends of the fruits of their labours, it’s their employers. It’s an ancient relationship model that can be symbiotic, but often ends up parasitic. So how can you avoid pouring your heart and soul into a project just to make someone else rich?
It’s a tricky subject, partly because a lot of investment in the arts is speculative, partly because emotions run high when the product has such a personal origin. When you hire the latest modern creative, fresh from the streets, to come up with your new advertising campaign, you’re taking a risk, you probably don’t sign them up but agree to not pay them if the campaign flops, but equally you don’t expect to pay him twice as much if the campaign goes viral and triples your stock price. You should also take time to consider why you are creating whatever it is your are creating, is your main motivation just to make money, or is the money just an enabler to let you create something you have to do? Would you rather put out something the client loves, but you hate, or are you the sort to stand by your principles and risk losing work in defence of artistic integrity? Is it more important to you to be recognised as the creator of a worthwhile work and have creative control, or for you to be paid for any old pap that’s been spawned by committee? They are all valid models, although one of them means you have sold your soul and put too much value on monetary gain, but who am I to judge?
It’s always nice to be paid. I enjoy eating regularly as much as the next man, probably more so if you see how wide I am, just make sure you enter relationships like this with clear expectations, and learn from those that have gone before. There is no reason you can’t have a good relationship with the people you work for, obviously it’s preferable to do so, but once you begin accepting their input into your ideas, you risk compromising your artistic integrity, and potentially diluting the input you have into the final product. Collaboration can be a wonderful thing, just make sure you are prepared to give credit to your collaborators.
Creator’s rights are not protected well by law, it’s better than it used to be, but it’s still a jungle out there, it’s just been pruned slightly. Take the field of comics as an example, it’s full of popular creators who are unhappy with their treatment by the industry.
There was a sad case recently that illustrates the complexities of the issue, where Robert Washington one of the co-creators of the popular DC/Milestone comics character “Static” died of a heart attack. He had been living on the edge for a while, sometimes homeless, working in a call centre to make ends meet, while DC continued to feature his ideas and characters in comics and a popular cartoon.
Some would argue that he had been paid as a work for hire employee, made some money and DC owe him nothing. Legally, they are probably right. Others would argue that since work he created was continuing to make DC money, he was entitled to some recompense or royalties payment, especially given his current circumstance. Morally, they probably have a point.
Robert died June 7, 2012. Charitable donations from fans and fellow comic creators paid for his funeral via a charity called the Hero Initiative. The comic Static Shock #8 came out the same month and the title was then cancelled.
Alan Moore is another name that pops up a lot when talking about Creator Rights, he’s had a good many of his ideas made into movies – Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, V for Vendetta, Constantine, and so sits in a place many would aspire to be in. Yet his relationship with the moviemakers has been a strained one, with Moore asking to have his name taken off the credits, refusing to accept funds made from the films, often openly criticising the establishment for spoon feeding diluted versions of his works towards the mouth of mass media.
It’s unusual to see an attitude like this in today’s sycophantic, materialistic world, is it biting the hand that feeds you, or making an important creative stand? I think it’s probably showing a lot more morality than we’re used to seeing in the world of the modern creative, and an example to be admired.
What’s more, instead of chasing the money and moving to Hollywood to be courted by sycophants, he stayed in Northants and got involved in an indie magazine called Dodgem Logic, which was brilliant, but currently on a break.
It’s difficult to talk about creator rights in comics and not mention Jack Kirby, the man who created or co-created a staggering number of the superhero characters that remain popular today in comics and movies. He died in 1994 but his ideas continue to capture the public interest. The Avengers, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, the X-Men, to some degree Spiderman and hundreds more all had Jack Kirby’s hand mould them. How many people today have heard of him though? Movies based on his ideas make billions but his family see not a penny in royalties. Never mind the mountains of money though, what about some respect and recognition for the work the man did? If the creative industry can treat one it’s King’s like this, how do you imagine it is going to treat you?
So what can you do? Two things.
- Go in with your eyes open, if you sign a contract, read it, make sure you know exactly what it is you are agreeing to. Even if you consider the person you are dealing with a friend closer than a brother, even if it is your brother, even if it’s your twin brother who pulled you from an icy lake when you were 6 and saved your life, get it all in writing. It’s like a pre-nup, it’s not very romantic, you might never need it, but it saves an awful lot of heartache if things do go wrong.
- Don’t lose sight of why you got into this world in the first place, you had an idea you were proud of, that you believed in, that excited you, don’t let someone else change it, exploit it or steal it just to make themselves some money. You will never make art that makes souls sing if you make it to get rich. You probably won’t get rich either. So go have some fun and instead of trying to make money, try to make something amazing.