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B&N Week 63: Ownership Is Tricky

| March 6, 2012 | 1 Comment

It’s Tuesday, and as always, it’s a glorious one! That means I’m going to cut the intro short, and let’s jump right into some Bolts & Nuts!

This week, I wanted to talk about ownership. It’s been on a lot of people’s minds recently, due to two things: Gary Friedrich not only losing his case against Marvel for the ownership of Ghost Rider, but also being sued by Marvel and owing them $17k; and Tony Moore suing Robert Kirkman over accounting of The Walking Dead.

This is just the most recent round of ownership disputes. The oldest, most well-known is Jack Kirby vs Marvel, but you also have Stan Lee Media vs Marvel, Neil Gaiman vs Todd McFarlane, Steve Gerber vs Marvel, Marvelman, and more.

Ownership disputes are an ugly thing. Most of these are about one thing: money. However, in order for it to be about money, the property, whatever it is, has to be successful.

Most of you are going after collaborations, and the reason for that is simple: you’re all broke. Because you’re broke, you go after the cheapest way to get your book done. The cheapest way is to give up part of your intellectual property: Pen-Man. You sink all of your money into getting Pen-Man on the shelves, and there it is, in all its glory.

And, surprise surprise, it’s selling! You’ve got a runway hit on your hands: the press coverage is great, leading to more sales, leading to more eyes, leading to more sales, leading to Hollywood, leading to more coverage, leading to more sales, leading to a cartoon that gets Pen-Man on television for a season, leading to more coverage, leading to more sales.

See a trend there?

Popularity equals sales equals money.

You know what Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Sean Combs said? More money, more problems.

Your biggest problem is the fact that you don’t have a contract stating who owns what. You have an agreement to have the work done on Pen-Man, but you’re making real money now: Hollywood came calling, and with the cartoon deal, you’ve also got all kinds of merchandise selling: toys, apparel, toothpaste, band-aids, even a cereal.

You hired Graeme McFreelancer to do the work, and you have little more than a handshake between you, as well as some friendly feelings as time progressed and the work continues to flow. When the money started to come in, you started paying Graeme a page rate [and a livable one at that], but now, Graeme feels he’s owed more money.

He asks nicely. He wants to be paid appropriately for bringing and continuing to bring Pen-Man to life.

Your stance has changed, though. Instead of it being about telling the stories you’ve always wanted to tell, you’re now unwilling to share the money that’s flowing in to you from your licensing deals. You’ve got your house paid off, you’re expecting a child, and you’re saving up a nest egg for yourself [read: your family] as well as saving to put your child/children through college.

After asking nicely and getting nowhere, Graeme decides he’s going to sue.

What happens next is in the hands of lawyers and judges.

Why is all of this happening? The lack of a contract.

(Wait. You said that I gave up part of my IP in order to get Pen-Man done. What happened to that?)

Nothing. When the case goes to court, during the discovery phase, your emails will act as something of a contract, and then Graeme should get whatever he is owed.

Ownership. Ownership can be tricky. Here’s what I recommend and what I think is fair: give the artist no more than 49%. You can definitely give less, but I don’t recommend more.

The reason why is this: there can only be one boss. If you each have an equal stake, there’s no tiebreaker. That can kill a beautiful thing.

Ownership can be listed in the credits of your comics. Generally, that’s stated as “Created by.” As an example, Pen-Man would say in the credits “Created By Kletus Jerkovitch and Graeme McFreelancer.” The amount of ownership doesn’t matter. That’s between the creators. If a creation only lists one creator, then that person is the owner. Simple.

If you are the lone creator and you let others create within your world, I’m going to give you a simple rule to follow: DON’T. Don’t let them create anything new. Not a character, not a concept, not even a car. Don’t let them create any backstory. Don’t let them embellish much on anything that isn’t there already. Don’t. Because if the property becomes popular and you continue to use it, then you could end up owing them money. Neil Gaiman vs Todd McFarlane has set precedent on just this type of thing with Medieval Spawn and Angela. Neil created them, and even though the work is derivative, the court said that Todd owed him money.

Don’t.

Even though Bob Kane created the look of Batman, Bill Finger created everything else in the early days of the character. However, whenever you see anything about Batman [movie, tv show, old serial], the only person listed as creating Batman is Bob Kane. [Bob’s widow even had a small role in a couple of the Batman movies of the 80s/90s.] Swindle? Possibly. Legally, it’s fine. Morally? That’s for you to decide.

The heirs of Jack Kirby are trying to get the founding characters of the Marvel Universe turned over to them. Stan Lee Media, on behalf of Stan Lee [who is no longer associated in any way, shape, or form with the company that bears his name], is trying to get Spider-Man and other characters turned over to them.

No matter what you say, you cannot deny that there are a handful of architects for the Marvel Universe. They created, curated, and shepherded early Marvel, allowing it to reach the heights it now holds. And none of these architects own any of it. [The last I checked, Stan was Chairman Emeritus of Marvel, and getting paid something like $1M/year just because he’s breathing. That might have been lessened.] All of the founding characters are owned by the corporations.

This is why ownership can be tricky, and why I recommend contracts and entertainment lawyers. This is to protect you, sometimes from yourself.

No homework this week. Enjoy the break!

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About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (1)

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  1. Jules Rivera says:

    I have an odd little story to tell with regards to this. When I first started one of my comics, there was this guy who had seen the comic and he asked me a really weird question: If he could make suggestions on how I should write the story. I thought this was very strange because I had only released three pages of the thing at all. How was he going to make suggestions to me about a story he knew nothing about? I figured his suggestion was just going to be something on the lines of “draw more titties” so I said I’d take a look at what he had in mind.

    Holy crap, was that a mistake.

    The guy sent me a document full of info dump on how I should build my world, how my own characters should interact with one another, etc. Not only was this extremely presumptuous of this guy, because he really had no idea what I had planned for the story, but I had realized there would be serious legal implications had I used any of his ideas. Ultimately, I said “thanks, but no thanks” and deleted the document before reading through the rest of it.

    …Cripes, I should probably take a look at that document just so I DON’T use any of his damn ideas now. Lesson learned, kiddies. Do NOT accept suggestions from strangers about your intellectual property.

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