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July 16, 2009

OP-ED: The Rights Wars

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Dave Elliott is the cofounder of Radical Publishing, for whom he is cowriting with Sam Sarkar the sequel to Caliber: First Canon of Justice, Book of the Dead. He is also writing a column on similar lines to this piece for bleedingcool.com and is editing Fall Out Toyworks, based on a concept from Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz and top designer Dr Romanelli, which will be published by Image Comics in September.

 
 
Created by…?
 
Two words that define so much in a person’s head, not so much about who did/does what but about who created the whole character, the concept, the supporting cast.…
 
In the traditional book world, there is usually only one creator: the writer. He sits alone and writes his novel with only the occasional input of a (hopefully) good editor. But in the field of comics, creation can be very different.…
 
Picture this (in an awesome Rod Sterling voice): A talented comic artist sits alone in his studio wanting to be appreciated for his ideas as well as his artistic talents. On his drawing board sits a rendering of a superhero. This character is dark and brooding, and like any good piece of art, it speaks volumes. We can see he is angry, that he prefers to serve his form of justice at night and violently. The poor state of his costume shows that he has either had a bad night or he lacks the wealth of a Bruce Wayne. Along the bottom is written “The Midnight Freak.”
 

Ding–dong. The doorbell rings, and it’s his friend, with whom he is going to see a movie. This friend is a writer.

So the writer sees the drawing and thinks it is amazing. What’s more, it inspires him to come up with ideas that the artist didn’t. Now the artist makes it clear he only wants this character doing a certain sort of thing, in a certain sort of way. The writer has no problem with that and as the two head to the movie theater, he comes up with several ideas for a supporting cast and even the beginnings of an idea where and when this could all be set.

This guy is a high-school student who actually gets a real rush out of fighting evil, and we later find out that the cause of this is his living within an abusive family; the father is in a gang or the mob. Together, they come up with the title “Midnight High” for the first story arc and the writer starts fleshing out the whole scenario.

At the theater, they meet with another artist and enjoy the movie. Afterward, they have a coffee and continue discussing the idea, where the other artist throws in some ideas and a few sketches for slight costume changes and some supporting cast ideas of his own.

Our first artist takes this all onboard and that night goes home and feverishly makes changes to his character. Meanwhile, the writer is writing up an outline and emails it to the artist to read. It’s about 30 pages long, so the artist reads the first page. It sounds like what they discussed, so everything is great.

They decide to try pitching it to a comic company that the artist is working for. The artist sets up an appointment and goes and makes his pitch. They like what he is talking about. Love the character designs that the two artists have drawn. They would like to read an outline, so he tells them he will email the outline the writer has written.

But here they frown a little. They like the project, but they have their own ideas for who is going to write this. Artist says it’s not a problem, it is all his. He created it. It’s his character. They say great and when he gets home, he emails them the outline.

Then he doesn’t hear anything for weeks.

He calls, and on his tenth attempt, he finally gets the editor. “What’s the problem?” He asks. “I thought you liked this.” The editor sighs, “We did, but I told you, we wanted one of our own writers to handle the script.”

“That’s not a problem,” the artist says quickly. “You can hire who you like, because I own this.”

“Not according to the outline you gave us.”

You see, the writer felt that by now this was his project as much as the artist. He had created a whole supporting cast, created an environment for these characters to be set in, and, more important, he felt he had actually been the one who breathed life into Midnight Freak. If the artist had read the entire outline, not only would he have read a lot of extra material that he had added, but at the end, he would have found two lines that would have made him turn white.

The writer had copyrighted the concept to the two of them and had gone the extra step of registering the outline in both their names. A decent move to protect them both.

The above is based loosely on a true story. Artists beware… Read everything the writer gives you. If you’re not prepared to do so, you are wasting both people’s time and efforts, plus you risk looking like an ass in front of others.
 
Better still, don’t say anything to anyone until all your own ideas are down on paper. That way, you can always go back to what you created and there are no gray areas.
 
Also, all writers and artists should know what their limitations are and acknowledge them.
 
So, who do you think created “Midnight Freak”? The writer, the artist, or both?
 
The next question is, whether or not they can decide on who created the character, who owns him?
 
Difficult choice, isn’t it? Not if you’re one or other of these creators. One feels that he created the character, and he did, but the writer did most of the creation of the world, fleshed out the character, made him three-dimensional. Spider-Man isn’t Spider-Man just because of Peter Parker. It’s Aunt May, Mary Jane, Gwen, Harry, Norman, Flash, Doc Octopus, Vulture, Kraven, Chameleon, Uncle Ben, the crook that shot Ben, Sandman, the list goes on and on… They weren’t the creation of just one person. Now, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created enough that anyone following them could not be counted as a creator of Spider-Man, although they might be able to take credit for a particular new character, as that world had been defined by then. Anyone else is just coming in to play with Stan and Steve’s toys.
 
An interesting note here is that Stan considers that he created Spider-Man, but what was printed was created by both Steve Ditko and himself. He happily acknowledges that Steve often wrote many of the stories and he merely dialogued them from Steve’s artwork and notes. Yet he is the one who came up with the idea of a single character called Spider-Man.
 
While certain creators can create, write, and draw a project themselves, most can’t. Someone can come up with a cool idea and character, but eventually it needs to be visualized. At that point, what importance do you put on that visualization? Do you keep asking artists to do it until you find one who will not take a claim on any rights or do you try to find the best artist you possibly can who will really make your idea shine?
 
I’ve seen writers start a project over again because the artist has inspired them to the point that they will base more of their idea on what the artist has come up with.
 
You see, comics are very much like film, as in they are a collaborative process, and the more the artist and writer are open to input from the other, the better the project will be.
 
Writers always think that they are the most important element, and artists feel the same way. But in the context of this argument, before you discuss ideas with anyone else and incorporate them, whether written or visual, you must make one thing clear. This is your idea. They can offer suggestions, but this is not to be shared. That person may balk at that and not help you or they might want to negotiate. What will you be open to and how valuable do you see anyone else’s input?
 
You might think this is difficult to do with a friend, but if you want to keep them as a friend, get this straight upfront. If it is someone who is going to do more than offer a few ideas over a beer and really collaborate with you (as writer or artist), make sure they understand the situation between the two of you. If they are an artist and you can’t afford to pay them any money, then you will more than likely have to agree to share the copyright and all profits with them, but make sure who has deciding vote if Hollywood comes knocking. I know writers who will not take a penny from any royalties and give them all to the artist on a project to make sure they have the control of the property while sharing any profits with the artist from outside the sale of the comic itself.
 
If you do not clarify all this upfront, it can only get ugly or take up way more time later down the road.
 
Both writers and artists should be aware that your fellow collaborator is probably viewing their importance the same as yours and that they are talking about this project the same way you are. This is my latest concept/project/idea. I really do have to keep stressing that point.

If you have a studio and are paying people to do something, sure, take all the rights. Whereas if you are not receiving any payment, you should be justified in taking both equal share of the copyright and an equal share of any other royalties that might come. But don’t take the credit for what others have done.
 
In my experience, it helps if more than one person is involved in a project. Sometimes there is a person involved you wished wasn’t, but you have to make the call: Is it worth it to proceed with this project with them if without them you don’t have one at all? The person who brings the most to the table usually ends up being the one who gets to call a lot of the shots. Is it fair? Usually it doesn’t feel like it, but there will always be other times when the shoe is on the other foot and someone is probably thinking that about you.
 
But please remember the most important thing: Get the legal work or at least a letter of intent set up between you all as soon as possible, because you’ll regret it later if you don’t.
 
Now seriously, guys, who is more important, the writer or the artist?