Comic Books

Comics, Creators, Copyrights and Collaboration

Representing comic book creators can be exciting: you get to use your JD to protect costumed heroes and villains! Given Hollywood’s love of the comic book property, attorneys who practice IP law and work in the entertainment industries should have a working knowledge of the legal issues comic book creators face each time they begin a project.

Many comic book projects are collaborative, with one person writing the script (the writer), another creating the initial drawings (the penciller), a third inking the drawings (the inker), and a fourth and fifth adding color and lettering (colorist and letterer, respectively). What many creators don’t realize is that when two or more authors work together to create a comic book or graphic novel, copyright law may deem them to be joint authors, with ownership rights dictated by copyright law, in the absence of a written agreement.

As a result, collaboration is one of the issues fraught with IP peril — with the ownership of a hero’s copyright hanging in the balance!

Most artists enter into collaboration with the best intentions, with each collaborator wanting to put his or her best foot forward while viewing the relationship in only the most positive light. That’s why so many artists start working with just a handshake agreement between them (and perhaps a couple of emails vaguely outlining who will do what). However, things can fall apart pretty quickly and messily if one partner is not living up to the expectations of the other.

And if the relationship falls apart, without a written agreement it can be difficult to determine who owns the project. As you can imagine, it’s easier to decide ownership issues when both parties are enthusiastic and just starting out, rather than when the relationship has soured. In fact, any modification of exclusive copyright ownership requires a written, signed agreement. Think of a collaboration contract as both a road map and a prenuptial agreement.

Ownership of the property: How will the work be owned and by whom?

Here are just a few of the key copyright issues attorneys may want to consider when advising artist collaborations.

Joint authorship

  • Do the collaborators intend to be joint authors in the resulting work? If not, the agreement should explicitly state that.

  • If they do want to be considered joint authors, they might want to include language stating that in the event that a court deems one author’s contributions not to be copyrightable (often one of the criteria of joint authorship), the author with the copyrightable contribution assigns a copyright interest to his collaborator.

Rights Ownership

  • Is every right owned equally?

  • Is any portion of the work being created as a work for hire? If so, a written agreement is necessary with all independent contractors.

  • Are any of the rights licensed from third parties outside the collaboration? If so, written license agreements should be created.

  • Has the copyright to both the writing and artwork been registered?

  • For those rights that are shared, how do the collaborators decide when, to whom, and for how much are those rights exploited?

  • For any right that is not shared with all collaborators, do those other collaborators have any right to receive money from the exploitation of these closely held rights?

  • What happens when the collaborators can no longer work together? Does the person who came up with the idea retain the right to develop the work with a different collaborator?

  • Can either collaborator use portions of the work in their own separate works? Often artists require that their collaborators seek their written permission before being allowed to use material from the joint work in separately authored, non-joint works.

Representations and Warranties

  • Are all collaborators promising that the material that they contribute to the project is original and unique to them?

  • Do all collaborators agree that they will indemnify each other for any copyright infringement or other lawsuit caused by their own infringing individual contributions?

An indemnification example

Wanda the writer creates an anti-hero character called “Neutral Spirit,” whose superpowers involve a psychic mind blast that incapacitates villains as if they were blind drunk. Agamemnon the artist draws the character like a lantern-jawed film noir detective: he sports a blue suit and fedora, driving gloves, red tie, and black domino mask. In short, “Neutral Spirit” looks a little too much like Will Eisner’s famous creation “The Spirit,” a fact that does not go unnoticed by Will Eisner Studios, Inc., which promptly sues for copyright infringement.

If Agamemnon indemnified Wanda, and she is sued, Agamemnon would have to pay for her legal damages (after all, he represented and warranted that he was creating a character that originated with him and was not copied from any other character), and those damages may include other similarly-damaged parties throughout the chain of exploitation and distribution of the comic book.

Obviously, the above is just a sampling of copyright-related issues arising from comic book collaboration. The attorney’s goal should be to craft a collaboration agreement dealing not just with rights issues, but profit sharing, expenses, termination provisions, and other issues common to any collaboration or partnership.

Portions of this post were excerpted from “The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators” (Focal Press, 2015), ©2015 Thomas A. Crowell.

Creator Tip: Once More into the Breach! #indiefilm #producer #comicbook #filmlaw

When you have a contract with a vendor and they breach it, you don’t have to pay them, right? Not necessarily…

Breach of contract lawsuits often result from one or both parties not performing their duties under an agreement, making misrepresentations within the contract, or delivering materials that don’t meet the standards expected by one of the parties. Small claims courts are set up to help litigants resolve issues under certain financial thresholds (often less than $5000), and are set up to help litigants who don’t have the benefit of a lawyer.

Performance is the successful fulfillment of a contractual duty. If a party to a contract fails to perform his duties under that contract, he may have breached the contract. There are two main kinds of breaches: minor and material.

A minor breach occurs when the damage to the aggrieved party is, well, minor. No surprise there. In the case of a minor breach however, the contract still stands and the non-breaching party must still perform.

EXAMPLE: A printer that is contractually obligated to deliver 1000 copies of your comic by noon delivers them at 1:00 p.m. instead. If the contract does not stipulate that ‘time is of the essence,’ the breach may be considered a minor one.
— The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators.

Remedy for Minor Breaches

The breaching party must remedy the particular breach and compensate the aggrieved party for any damages. For a minor breach, the aggrieved party, however, is not relieved of her duties under the contract.

EXAMPLE: In the previous scenario, the printer that was late in delivering the comics must pay any expenses resulting from the one-hour delay. However, you must still pay the printer the agreed fee (minus costs that you incurred as a result of their delay).
— The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators.

Fortunately, there are effective ways of drafting a contract to build in safeguards against breaches and predetermined methods for working out problems before they become actionable and turn into lawsuits.

For more on drafting effective agreements in the entertainment industry, see The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers and The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators.

Parts of this blog been excerpted from The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators.

© 2017 Thomas A. Crowell, Esq.

Thomas A. Crowell, Esq. ( is a partner at the law firm of Lane Sash & Larrabee, LLP. He focuses his practice on intellectual property and media law.


Creator Tip: Think Clearly about IP  #indiefilm #comicbook #filmmaking #screenwriting #artists #filmlaw

Creator Tip: Think Clearly about IP  #indiefilm #comicbook #filmmaking #screenwriting #artists #filmlaw

Copyrighted and trademarked materials appear everywhere: comic book illustrations & scripts, posters, sculptures, product labels, superhero logos, makeup & costume designs, song lyrics; even the creative selection and arrangement of public domain elements can be protected by copyright. You need to make sure that you have the right to include any of these materials in your book (a process called clearance).

CREATOR TIP: NO COPYRIGHT FOR CONCEPTS #indiefilm #comicbook #filmmaking #screenwriting #artists #filmlaw

Let’s say that you are a writer with a great idea for a comic book character: “Maggot Man – Carrion Eater of Justice!” Your new superhero has the powers of a maggot and a sense of righteous indignation… but little else. You figure you’ll flesh out your character once you start working with the right artist.

So, you go to meet-up groups looking for the right artist with whom to collaborate. You tell a several artists about your character idea, take a look at their portfolios, and finally decide on somebody who seems like a good fit. But just as you finish up the comic book script and sit down to talk with your new partner, you see your character on the web . . . created by one of the artists you interviewed for the project!

You have timestamp emails showing that you sent your idea to the plagiarizing penciller before he created the project. Heck, you even have a Facebook post from him, it which he writes “Thank you for telling me your comic book idea; it sounds great!”

It looks like you have a slam-dunk lawsuit for copyright infringement or idea misappropriation, right?

Not so fast. Unless your conversations rose to the level of creating a contract for the protection of your idea with this purloining painter, you may be out of luck. That’s because the law really, really, really doesn’t like giving anyone a monopoly over an idea. In fact, copyright law expressly does not protect ideas.

The plain and simple truth is that if you post your idea on the Internet or tell somebody your concept at a cocktail party, chances are you can wave (and waive) goodbye to owning that idea.

This is because the law sees artistic ideas as building blocks for expressive works. Anyone who had exclusive rights to an idea would have a monopoly over that idea, which would frustrate the policy of copyright law, which is, to encourage authors in the creation of new expressive works.

And note: this whole “no-copyright-protection-for-ideas” thing is media agnostic — which means that it doesn’t matter if you’re writing the screenplay, recording a song, or have a great idea for a painting — there’s still no copyright protection over an idea.

So, what you do when all you have is just a concept and you want to work with other people to flesh out?

Well, one thing you can do is get a copy of The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators and The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers to find out how to protect concepts from misappropriation.

Parts of this blog been excerpted from The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators.

© 2017 Thomas A. Crowell, Esq.

Thomas A. Crowell, Esq. ( is a partner at the law firm of Lane Sash & Larrabee, LLP. He focuses his practice on intellectual property and media law.


CREATOR TIP: COPYRIGHT AND CREATIVE CHOICES #indiefilm #comicbook #filmmaking #screenwriting #artists #filmlaw

When we think of the kinds of things that can be copyrighted, we often think of types of expression, like motion pictures, drawings, paintings, screenplays, comic books, music, etc. But did you know that in addition to these works, a particularly creative arrangement or selection of materials may also be copyrighted?

In fact, if the selection or arrangement is creative enough, that arrangement can be copyright even despite the fact that what is arranged or selected may be in the public domain, and thus not itself protected by copyright!

For instance, you could register the copyright in:

• A film montage made from Charlie Chaplin's early works, even though the copyright has long since expired in those films, or

• A collage made from scraps of 19th-century advertisements, even though the copyright has long since expired in those images, or

• A particularly creative selection of words. For example, in James Lipton’s work “An Exaltation of Larks” Lipton was able to copyright the particular selection and arrangement of “terms of venery” (collective nouns for a group of animals, like a “herd” of cows, or my favorite, a “murder” of crows).

It is important to note that since it is the creativity of the selection and arrangement that is important to the granting of this kind of copyright the choices and organization of the elements must be sufficiently creative. For instance, the alphabetical listing of data is not creative enough to warrant copyright protection, nor is the chronological ordering of data.

Parts of this blog been excerpted from The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators and The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers. See those books for more details on copyright registration for artists.

© 2017 Thomas A. Crowell, Esq.  

Thomas A. Crowell, Esq. ( is a partner at the law firm of Lane Sash & Larrabee, LLP. He focuses his practice on intellectual property and media law.


CREATOR TIP: SHOW ME THE MONEY! #indiefilm #comicbook #filmmaking #screenwriting #artists #filmlaw

Here’s the scenario: you sell your screenplay, comic book, musical composition, or other artistic work and the producer, publisher, record company, or other party offers you some form of contingency compensation in exchange.

Whether we call this contingent compensation "net profits," "residuals," "royalties," or “fantasy fun bucks,” it doesn’t matter, the concept is the same: you are being promised a certain percentage of money from the option, sale, licensing, or other commercial exploitation of your work.

There are two very important aspects to making sure you get paid that you must keep in mind when negotiating this provision in your contract:

1.       Understanding the payment formula

2.       Making them prove it

The first part, “understanding the payment formula” may require the most negotiation on your part. For instance, net profits are paid after certain expenses are deducted, so the trick is negotiating what expenses can be deducted before you are paid. There are countless variations to royalty provisions, net profit calculations, and residual computations (many can be found in my books The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers and The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators). As a matter fact, most people will spend the majority of their time negotiating the formula provision, while neglecting the second step: making them prove it.

Whenever you’re being promised contingent compensation, your contract should also have an audit clause. If you are receiving royalties, residuals, net profits, or any other contingent compensation, you’re going to want to be able to keep track of the other side’s financial records to make sure you’re getting paid what you are owed. This provision specifies how frequently the parties must provide each other with a detailed accounting of profits, costs, and revenue streams. It also regulates how often a party can send a certified public accountant to perform an audit of the other party’s financial records.

In a typical audit provision, the party with audit rights has the right to hire a CPA to perform an annual audit. If the audit uncovers an underpayment of more than, say, 5%, the party being audited has to pick up the cost of this audit (as well as make good on the underpayment that was discovered).

Example: Accounting and Audit. Pub Co. shall keep complete and accurate financial records relating to the exploitation of the Comic Book and shall send Artist a semiannual Royalty statement and, if applicable, Royalty payment. Artist shall have the annual right, upon 30 days advance written notice, to cause a certified public accountant, at Artist’s expense, to inspect the books and records Pub Co. keeps with respect to the accounting of the exploitation of the Comic Book. In the event that such inspection reveals an underpayment by Pub Co. of the monies owed Artist, Pub Co. shall pay the difference. If such underpayment shall be in excess of 5% of the amount owed Artist for any payment period, Pub Co. shall also reimburse Artist for the directly attributable, verifiable, out of pocket third party cost of such inspection.

Failure to include an audit clause may leave you relying only upon the accurate accounting and upstanding ethical character of the other party to the contract. And when money is involved, it’s always good to “trust, but verify.”

Parts of this post were excerpted from The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators.

© 2017 Thomas A. Crowell, Esq.  

Thomas A. Crowell, Esq. ( is a partner at the law firm of Lane Sash & Larrabee, LLP. He focuses his practice on intellectual property and media law.