Then play ball to win. Just remember to play fair.
What in the world am I talking about? Well, I know this is last week’s news, but I’m only now getting around to getting my thoughts clear. On the Cartoon Brew (love the new look) last week Amid called out Cuppa Coffee studio for their online animation contest and he wasn’t exactly delicate about his disapproval, either. Cuppa responded and it seems a bit of a spat was on. Now I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I do have some observations and maybe a word of caution to you younger folks out there.
The basic gist of Amid’s complaint was that Cuppa-Coffee was being — shall we say exploitative – of less experienced animators’ ignorance of the current mechanisms of the TV animation development market. The rough idea of Cuppa’s contest is this: You submit your animation short film to their online contest. The winning animation ideas will be developed by Cuppa (”development” probably means they do some additional art and story idea work to get it ready for a network pitch) and they will pitch it to TV networks to try and get the show picked up. So far, seems reasonable, right? Well, there’s a little bit of a catch- you surrender all rights to your work forever. And you surrender them regardless if you win, regardless if your idea gets developed or anything ever comes of the contest. In the very act of submitting something to them you surrender your rights to it. The reason this is kinda dangerous for you is that the landscape of media distribution is changing. There’s more than just TV and good marketable ideas are at a premium. If in 10 years your idea is the perfect idea for an internet show then Cuppa Coffee owns your idea and you don’t. Or if Cuppa Coffee wants to use your character as their new mascot, then you don’t have any say over that. Or if they have some down time, take your cool looking character, make an Oscar winning short film with it that then gets them a lucrative feature film deal with the Weinsteins doing something totally unrelated to your idea (but your idea won them the deal), you can be sure you have absolutely no claim on that. Or if they like your character and they decide to roll that character into another idea and create an amalgam of the two to make something new and that takes off as a new animated ringtone downloaded by tens of millions of iPhone owners, then you own jack diddly squat of that as well.
I think you get the picture.
Of course they say it’s implied that you’ll be included in some kind of remuneration negotiation should the network option your idea from Cuppa, which sounds all fair and reasonable. But in the game of business-ball all such implications are just of cotton candy wishes and rainbow dreams if it’s not written down and agreed to. The artist should try to retain rights with an understanding that if it gets optioned you can negotiate the rights at the proper time. Of course if that happens then the poor little artist would actually have some negotiating leverage and that’s not a winning business-ball play for the contest sponsor. Nope, better to sew up the rights before anything gets out of hand. It’s a pretty simple hardball business move. Nothing illegal. Maybe not even immoral- though I have my doubts. So why do I bring it up if I don’t want to get involved in some other fella’s fight (and I don’t)? I see that my job is to let you the artist know this one thing- the reality is that you as a creator just don’t need to surrender your leverage like that.
I’m not gonna pretend to be all indignant about what Cuppa Coffee is doing. They’re just playing business-ball (though it appears by their response they don’t want us to think they are. It’s probably not the best idea to play the offended party on this one, fellas). It’s not that Cuppa Coffee was being dishonest. They put it right out there in their disclaimers- you surrender all rights to the work hereafter forever and ever amen. It’s there in black and white and it’s not even written in hard to understand legal-ese. So they’re not hiding anything and they weren’t trying to trick anybody. But this whole notion of trading exposure for the inexperienced artist while corporate benefactors enjoy the fruits of those labors- well, it’s as old as the hills. And it’s not exactly the most genteel of arrangements. It’s a pretty standard hardball business move. It’s an effort to expand the studio’s “idea potential” for very little investment. Call it reducing the cost of acquiring the raw materials of doing business. Heh. They’re doing this by getting a volunteer crew to give away their ideas in exchange for an opportunity. Of course they kinda forget to mention that it’s an opportunity which the animators already have in a highly liquid market, they just aren’t aware of it yet. But hey, you’re playing business-ball. It’s not your job to make sure everybody knows what their rights and opportunities are. If they can’t keep up, you score and take the lead. And harvesting ideas is the true gold in the development biz. The rest is window dressing. This contest isn’t illegal. It’s not uncommon. It is not without precedent. If it weren’t for the rights grab it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. But that rights grab is a pretty calculated corporate kind of move. Which is fine if that’s how you wanna roll. Most big companies make no bones about it- they’re playing hard ball and they are playing to win. Adjust accordingly.
Listen, you only have one thing to your work- you own it. Whether it makes you a dime or not, you own it. Even if you can’t monetize the actual work itself, your ownership allows you to leverage the work to promote something you can monetize. Rights are THE value in this game. Rights are not something you should give away without negotiation or compensation. Ever. Period. Really. The guys at JibJab have turned down opportunities to do projects that were worth tens of thousands of dollars simply because they have one rule for their studio- they absolutely retain all rights and ownership of the work. Period. They did this even when they were unknown nobodies. They did this even when those tens of thousands of dollars would have come in real handy. But there it is: The JibJab Law #1- Keep Your Rights. Why did they develop this rule? Well, one of the founding brothers is an MBA business school grad. Hmm. Do you think there’s something to this idea of rights retainment that maybe us artsy types aren’t understanding?
I’ve had the unique blessing of licensing the use of two of my creations to a media company. I licensed the use of my short film Lunch to Big Idea for them to put on a DVD home video. And for our children’s book property Gruntly & Iggy’s The Great Cheese Squeeze , Bryan Ballinger and I licensed that to Big Idea as well. With Lunch is was a simple, non exclusive right to use the film in exchange for a flat fee. They were a big company- having revenues that were in the $40-50million per year neighborhood, but somehow I managed to maintain all rights and ownership to my work. And trust me, they weren’t doing me any favors just because I worked there, either. But it was simple to see how the field was laid out. They had a need for suitable, quality content in a hurry. I had the content already finished and ready to use. The deal was plain- they could use it, but I still own it and they gave me X amount of dollars in exchange. Would they have liked to have gotten it for free? Sure, who wouldn’t? But in business-ball (as in life) you don’t always get what you want. For my part I was happy with the deal. For their part I think so were they (the DVD went on to sell about half a million units, so it couldn’t have been all bad.)
With the G&I book Bryan and I did sign over rights because the publisher (Zondervan) insisted that Big Idea own all copyrights. So in order to get the book published we signed over the copyrights. But that was part of the negotiation- not just a blind offering for free. In exchange we received additional value back on the money end to recompense our signing over the rights. And we didn’t just sign away the rights in perpetuity with no conditions attached. Bryan had a smart idea to negotiate the contract so that it had provisions to allow that the rights could come back to us should the company and publisher leave the property un-utilized for any period of 12 consecutive months. And in fact when Big Idea Productions filed bankruptcy it was decided by their new owners that they weren’t interested doing anything further with the property. So we employed the services of a lawyer and exercised our right in the original contract to reclaim ownership of the property. I am happy to say that today we own all rights to the property again. It was a solid seller in the children’s market and the property is pretty strong with lots of potential. We’re not doing anything with it- yet. But who knows what life will bring? Opportunities come along unannounced and luck favors the prepared, dahling. And if you don’t own your work, your quiver is empty when the targets come into view. Again, we were just two artists and we somehow managed to make provisions so that we retained opportunities to do something with our work. This is because we understood one thing- in the game of media business-ball ownership rights have real value.
All this to say, don’t ever, ever, ever give away rights to your work blindly, without condition and without real value in return. Rights have great value. The other player in the ballgame knows this. That’s why they want you to give it to them for free. Now you know, too.