Illustration Licensing Explained - For The Small Business Owner & Marketer


The aim of this general guide is to help explain how illustration licensing works, and hopefully remove much of the uncertainty and nervousness a small business owner or marketer might feel when commissioning an illustrator.

The way illustration fees are quoted is related to usage - How and where the illustration will be used, and also the scale/profile of the client. This is quite different to many other industries, where there may be a standard cost/tariff, and so can sometimes appear complicated and confusing. The points outlined below follow a number of conversations I've had recently with clients and potential clients, bringing to light the fact that for them the way illustration is licensed can be tricky to understand and sometimes an obstacle to working with an illustrator who prices this way.


Here goes...

Simply put….illustration licensing and pricing go hand in hand. The wider the usage of an illustration and the bigger the audience it’s likely to reach, the higher it’s value… so it’s reasonable to expect that this would be reflected in the illustrator’s fee. For example, the fee for an illustration to be used on a flyer for a small, independent shop would be vastly different to the cost for a similar illustration being used on a wide scale billboard campaign for a global brand.

This approach to pricing is widely used across the illustration industry and actively promoted by the Association of Illustrators (the AOI) - a recognised trade association for illustration. I have been a member of the AOI for a number of years and regularly consult with them when quoting on new projects, to ensure that my fees are in line with current industry levels for specific commissions and similar profiled clients. As well as supporting illustrators and working to ensure illustration is a thriving and sustainable industry, the AOI provides some resources that you may find useful as a potential commissioner/client - For instance, this Guide to Commissioning 

What is an illustration licence?

An illustration licence agreement is essentially a contract between an illustrator and their client, which clearly sets out the work that has been commissioned and the terms for its use.

It is intended to provide transparency so that everyone knows where they stand in terms of rights and ownership, rather than to create loopholes.

The fee attached to the licence covers the creation of the illustration and it’s agreed usage.


How does it work?

Once I have quoted on a potential project and the fee has been agreed, before starting work on an illustration, I will always send the client an Acceptance of Commission document - this is essentially the illustration licence. Most professional illustrators will supply a similar document…

*EDIT APRIL 2019* Following recent advice from the AOI, the previous document has now been replaced by a new Illustrator Commissioner Agreement - it is a simple contract, just with a bit more detail than before. Below is my version of the agreement, based on the AOI template - Once we have agreed the work you have commissioned me to do, I would send you a copy of this with all the relevant details for your project.


This Illustrator Commissioner Agreement includes all the important information relating the commissioned illustration and it’s agreed usage. As the client, you are not required to sign the document, but the fact you have received it and not queried anything is enough for the illustrator to proceed. However, as with any contract, it is important to read it(!) - It provides the opportunity for you to flag up any potential problems or concerns relating to the stated usage before any work is done, therefore hopefully saving any issues or confusion later.


How do I know what sort of licence I need?

This would really become apparent at the briefing stage. Before quoting for the work an illustrator will likely ask various questions to determine how you intend to use their illustration.

I have a standard briefing document which gathers the basic information I need to quote properly on a project - Download it here


Who is a licence really for...the client or the illustrator?

Of course, a licence helps an illustrator safeguard their work, but it is intended to be useful for both parties. In approaching pricing and the licensing of my work in this way, I have found the main benefit for me and my clients is that discussions about usage are done at the start of every project, removing any ‘grey areas’ as to who owns the work and permitted usage. Everything is clearly documented and may be referred back to at a later date, if needs be - I see this as a crucial part of delivering a professional service.

If a client has commissioned work for a specific purpose they would likely be granted exclusive rights, so can feel confident that the work will not be used elsewhere.


It is fair to say at this point that not all illustrators will bother with licences and some may be happy to charge a flat fee for their work, which might relate to the time they spend creating the illustration or be calculated in some other way. I cannot really comment on this approach, except to say that it is at odds with what is generally advised and accepted within the professional illustration industry.


But licensing basically means I will need to pay more for the same piece of work?

Possibly, although not always the case. An illustration licence means that you only need to pay for the usage you need rather than to cover all possible use of that illustration across all media, forever. For example, an ‘All Media, In Perpetuity’ licence would be more expensive than say a 3 or 5 year licence for a specified use... and when you take into account that an illustration may have a limited life, it’s just about considering how long realistically you are likely to want to use it for.

Licensing shouldn’t be seen as prohibitive, and intended to restrict how you can use the work that you’ve paid for, it’s simply to ensure that that the fees paid reflect the value of the work created.

Also to mention, illustrator’s fees may sometimes be negotiable. As a small business you may have a limited budget - it’s useful to be upfront about this so that it can be taken into account when an illustrator quotes for the work. There may be some flexibility in what can be done in terms of licensing to keep fees lower, or a discount may be offered in certain circumstances, particularly if the illustrator is keen to work with you.

What if my needs change over time?

That's fine, it's perfectly feasible that how you want to use an illustration may evolve over time. Licences can be extended at a later date, to allow for a longer duration or to cover additional usage. There would usually be an additional fee to reflect any extra usage, which can be discussed as and when required.

I completely understand that the thought of unknown/additional costs can be worrying and potentially problematic, especially for smaller businesses where finances may be tight or difficult to manage. Every case is different, but generally, illustrators are a friendly bunch, and wouldn’t look to hold you to ransom over additional usage that may have been unforeseen… it’s more about coming to a mutual agreement that works from both sides.

However, if an illustration was originally licensed for use on a business card for example, but once it was done you liked it so much that it was rolled out on a range of merchandise to sell, there would justifiably be an issue! The best approach is to be upfront with the illustrator, check what was included on the original licence and if it’s not included discuss it with them before going ahead and using it elsewhere.


We’d like to own the rights to the illustration...

By law, the copyright of an illustration rests with the illustrator. In commissioning an illustration you would be granted rights to use that illustration for the agreed purpose/s via an illustration licence, and assuming the licence you have covers all your required usage, really there is no need for you to own the copyright.

Illustrators are strongly advised not to sign over copyright to their work, as it is not in their best interests to do so. This is because it relinquishes any control over where and how their illustration work may be used, changes can be made to it without their approval, and it removes any right they have to reproduce the work, in a portfolio for example.

If an illustrator does decide to sell the copyright for an illustration it is called a copyright assignment and this should be put into writing. The fee for a copyright assignment would justifiably be very high to reflect the fact that it gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce the image (or sell on to allow others to reproduce it) in any way throughout the world for the period of copyright (which is the lifetime of the creator + 70 years).


Round up

I hope that this has provided a good overview? As I see it, the issue of illustration licensing should not be overly complicated, or be seen as a problem that needs to be overcome. It’s more about being open and honest from the outset and making sure everyone is on the same page. The intention is to provide transparency for all, rather than being a way for the illustrator to catch you out later.

The points discussed generally relate to straight forward licensing of illustration, directly between an illustrator and client, as this is what I mainly have experience of. For the licensing of illustration for some specific purposes - such as for animation or where the illustration is a key element on a product to be sold (a greeting card or T-shirt, for example) -  there may be some other particular considerations to be taken into account. These should be discussed with the illustrator you are working with.

If you are a small business/organisation (or anyone else!) and unsure about any other aspects relating to illustration licensing I'd be really interested to hear from you - I may be able to offer some help or advice, or consult with the AOI for clarification.  I appreciate licensing can be a tricky thing to get your head around, particularly if you haven't worked with an illustrator before. Feel free to email me with any questions.


Let’s not make licensing an issue!

From my perspective as a professional illustrator, I would always hope to be approachable and fair and to be able to reach a workable licence agreement that fits my clients needs, whilst also paying me fairly for my work. It shouldn’t be that the licensing gets in the way of the actual illustration… which is the fun bit, right?



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