Wednesday, February 4, 2009

biting the hand that feeds...

I was recently approached by a National Labor Group (I’ll call it the NLG*) to do a pro-bono illustration for a calendar they produce each year in which they explain aspects of their mission with a dozen illustrated essays. It's a project I've participated in twice before, having done illustrations about Farm Workers' Rights and Health Care Reform in previous years.

I'm happy to do pro-bono work for causes in which I believe, and helping disenfranchised and underprivileged workers — a major part of the NLG's mission — is a cause I can get behind. In recent months I've created artwork in support of the Obama campaign and the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and for Habitat for Humanity. Doing such work is personally fulfilling and the gratitude I receive is rewarding.

So when the National Labor Group came calling, I once again accepted.

But then I unaccepted.

In past years, my participation was by way of a gentleman's agreement of sorts... I'd create the artwork, and they could use it as they saw fit. I don't necessarily like those terms, but I didn't want to hamper the efforts of a worthy cause.

But this year I received an "Illustrator's Agreement," and its terms seemed to express more contempt than gratitude. Some sample clauses:

1. The illustrator... agrees to donate all copyrights to the artwork to... NLG for no remuneration. The art will be [used in the] calendar and for subsequent... use in leaflets, posters, newsletters and other printed publicity distributed by NLG consituent entities.

2. The illustrator will donate the original art. The illustrator agrees to not modify and sell the digital image of the still recognizable work of art for commercial or any other use.

5. In case [the NLG] needs to make changes to the artwork...

6. [The NLG] retains the right not to print the illustration in its calendar...

7. The illustrator will receive 2 copies of the Calendar in which [his] artwork appears.

8. The illustrator may request use of the image for self-promotional purposes...

It was, in other words, work-for-hire in a thin disguise.

In work-for-hire, the artist relinquishes copyright. In doing so, the employer (or entity that hired the creator of the work) becomes the legal author, effectively stripping the artist of any rights to use or license the artwork, or even to use modified versions. Such contracts are anathema for those of us in this business. While not technically a WFH contract (because it does not contain the words "work for hire"), the terms and conditions of the NLG's Illustrator's Agreement amount to roughly the same thing in spirit.

It was shocking and disappointing that an organization that purports to stand up for workers' rights would, when it comes to their own needs, take such an overtly oppressive stance, subordinating the illustrator to the position of a worker forced to relinquish valuable rights. It seemed immoral. And dazzlingly hypocritical.

The irony could hardly be more striking. With one of the NLG's goals being to "organize workers excluded from collective bargaining protections under U.S. labor law", it is incomprehensible that it should seek to further its mission in part by exploiting illustrators. You see, freelance illustrators are excluded from collective bargaining protections under U.S. labor law. We may be lone artists working out of spare bedrooms in homes across the country, but each of us is considered a "company" under U.S. law, and we are forbidden from organizing or from discussing fees under provisions of anti-trust laws. Getting together to discuss business is considered collusion.

And so as a freelance illustrator concerned about illustrators' rights and the erosion thereof -- both in business trends and copyright law -- I felt it was not in my best interest to affiliate with an organization that would take advantage of the good intentions of artists by way of such an oppressive, one-sided contract. I was willing, after all, to allow them virtually unrestricted use of the art, for free. And I was willing to allow them exclusive use of the artwork for a reasonable period of time, say a year, perhaps more. In fact, the excessive rights grab and absolute restrictions would not have benefited the NLG beyond what I was willing to give them. They served only to overload their already full plate at the expense of my rights.

And somehow, after demanding so much for so little, after responding to generosity and enthusiasm with hubris and greed, an offer of two calendars in exchange feels more like a slap in the face than a pat on the back.

So with great disappointment — as I admire the stated goals of the NLG — I'll save my pro-bono work for someone else, someone with a less avaricious legal team and a better sense of fairness.

*NLG is not the organization's real name, which I’ll refrain from mentioning.

1 comment:

Ilene said...

Na-a-s-s-ty! Makes me wonder if any of these organizations actually read the contracts their lawyers give them and/or even understand what they've commissioned. If they do, more's the pity. This is a perfect illustration of why we need to continue the legal battles to retain our copyright protection in the face of lawyers and corporate CEO's whose greed is way out of control.