How do illustration licences work?

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  • Illustrated pencil shavings. Illustration licences.

    Whether you’re a freelance illustrator or commissioning illustration from artists, it’s important to understand how illustration licences work. The purpose of this general guide is to help to alleviate some of the uncertainty that businesses may feel when commissioning an illustrator, as well as give illustrators the confidence to use licences. Licensing can be daunting for both parties, and can appear unnecessarily complicated and restrictive, but that needn’t be the case.

    What are illustration licences?

    Unlike many other creative sectors, illustration is commissioned using a licence agreement. This is essentially a contract between the commissioner and artist for artwork that will be created, or that already exists, and then used for an agreed purpose, in return for a fee. The parameters can be really specific, or extremely broad, and include duration, territory, exclusivity and applications. The purpose of the written licence is to have all of these factors agreed between the commissioner and artist before any work begins, ensuring that both on the same page and content with the contract. Everything is documented and can be referred back to at a later date.

    Pricing in this way is used across the illustrative industry, and is openly encouraged by the Association of Illustrators (the AOI) who are a body supporting illustrators and working to ensure that the industry continues to thrive and eradicate exploitative practices. They provide a wealth of advice and expertise across several aspects of the profession to its members. Whether you are beginning your career in illustration or have been working for a while with varying levels of success, I recommend becoming a member to have their ongoing support. Here you can find my licence template. You can also obtain a template from the AOI’s members area.

    What do illustration licences cover?

    The written licence itself contains details of the parameters for the way in which the artwork can be used, for an agreed fee. Several standard factors are considered, which we will look at below, although you could have any limitations you may deem relevant. Once the usage has been assessed, then a value can be assigned to the creation of the artwork to the client.

    Licencing use of artwork

    The use of the artwork should be easy to determine as the client will usually know what they are commissioning the work for. If there is possibility that the uses of the artwork may expand in the future, then it is always worth adding a note to your illustration licences that a further fee will be required should this happen, to avoid a misunderstanding.

    An example: A client may as you to create some artwork for an album cover, and this will be listed. It may be possible that they want to use the artwork on posters to promote the album, and this should either be agreed in the contract, or needs to be bought as a separate use under an additional licence at the time.

    License Duration

    This covers the amount of time that a party will be able to use the artwork for. This varies depending on the kind of project and client that you’re creating work for, and can range from months to decades. When commissioning artwork, consider how long you will need to have access to the artwork you are licensing.

    An example: A monthly magazine publisher would likely only need to license the artwork for the duration of the issue for which they have commissioned artwork, whereas a literary publisher would probably need artwork that can be used for the entire length of the copyright of the publication.

    Territory Licensing

    It is necessary to determine the areas geographically in which an artist’s work may be used. This can become tricky when you’re looking at work that may be used or distributed digitally through the internet, and in general this would require a world licence. This doesn’t necessarily make the price any higher, as a small client may not have much reach, but it should still be specified to cover both parties.

    Exclusivity Licensing

    Exclusive licensing simply means that the commissioner has sole access to the work created, and the illustrator is not free to license the same work to another party, within the other limits specified (territory, duration etc.). A client would usually be granted exclusive rights to the commissioned work by default. However, the situation may arise where someone approaches you about using artwork that you have previously created, either for yourself or another client, and wishes to license it themselves after the fact. You are within your rights to relicense artwork that is no longer under another licence or outside of the current licence parameters.


    All of the above factors can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re an artist sending an enquiring client what feels like a thousand questions before you can give them a quote for your work. You may find it useful to create a short form which talks the client through these concepts, and help you both narrow down what it is client needs.

    What happens if a client's needs change over time?

    It’s understandable that a client’s needs from illustrations may change over time once the licence has been agreed and the artwork created. The best thing to do if, as a client, you find yourself in this situation is to get in touch with the illustrator and discuss your evolving requirements. An illustrator will be happy to accommodate these changes and can offer you an extension to various limits of your licence. This will likely incur an additional fee relative to these changes. It is always the best course of action to get in touch with the illustrator before you move forward on additional uses. Illustrators want to ensure that client’s getting the most out of the artwork and that they are happy with our services, so they’re always keen to work with you on any issues you may encounter.

    Illustration copyright

    By default, copyright of an illustration lies with the illustrator. A client may license said artwork for their desired purposes, but the copyright remains with the artist. Assuming the licence covers all of the uses you required, there really would be no need for a client to hold the copyright.

    Illustrators are not advised to sign over copyright, because it leaves them with no control over the artwork, such as where it’s used, how it’s used, whether it is amended or expanded upon, or when and how it is reproduced. It also removes the illustrator’s own right to reproduce the artwork, meaning that they cannot use it even in their own portfolio.

    Should an illustrator decide to hand over copyright, this must be done formally and in writing. This is called a copyright assignment. It will understandably incur a hefty fee given the fact that it grants the client unlimited rights to the artwork for the duration of the copyright (which is the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years).

    Find out more about copyright here.

    Now you're confident using illustration licences!

    I hope this brief guide has cleared up any concerns or uncertainty around illustration licences, and given you some confidence in either using them or purchasing one. The important thing to remember is that licences are about ensuring that both the illustrator and the commissioner are getting the best out of the agreement as possible as well as making the parameters of the project fair, clear and accessible to both parties. As an illustrator, I aim to ensure that my clients are over the moon with the work that they receive and that they don’t feel restricted by the licence in any way. I want my clients to have a positive experience when they work with me, and find that the licence approach is the most professional and transparent way to achieve this.

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