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Illustration Licensing and Royalties

by Arianne Foulks

September 9, 2014

I’ve been a big fan of illustration since my very first picture book as a baby! When I started Aeolidia a decade ago, I contacted some of my favorite illustrators and asked them if they’d join me in creating adorable sites for our clients – not in any kind of strategic way, but just because I wanted an excuse to work with them. We still create beautiful custom illustrations at Aeolidia. Some cute stuff for kids’ shops, but also as part of our branding packages, to bring life and personality to creative shops, and to illustrate the products themselves.

Some recent favorite Aeolidia illustrations below:
Gilly's Garden illustration



Illustrations for Sweet Anthem


Boco Baby illustration

Selling an illustrated product

Our customers use illustrations to set the tone of their brand on their marketing materials (website, social media, business cards, flyers, advertisements, etc.).  Some of them create unique illustrated products. One place where there is some confusion about illustration pricing is when someone wants to sell a product with an illustration on it. This is more complicated than just commissioning an illustration, and the licensing and associated fee changes as soon as you are making a profit off of your illustrator’s work.

Here is some basic information about illustration licensing and royalties.

We sell the full rights to logos, so your logo, even if illustrated, will be exclusively yours, and you may print it on anything you like, for sale or not for sale.

Want to sell t-shirts with your logo on them, for profit?

No problem! The logo is yours, and you’re welcome to do so. This is part of the reason why logos tend to cost more than custom illustration work – you are paying for all rights to use your logo as you see fit.

Want to sell t-shirts with a custom illustration that was originally created for your website?

Now it gets trickier. It’s the industry standard for illustrators to charge royalties for items that will be sold for profit. If people are buying a shirt or a bag because the illustrator’s artwork is on it, then it is felt that the illustrator is entitled to some of the profits.

Even if you bought the physical art from your illustrator you didn’t necessarily buy the rights to copy and distribute it. Should you go to print without copyright your illustrator will have every right to a considerable share of the profits, not to mention damages and attorney’s fees if it becomes a legal battle.

-Andrew McDonald, Crucial Tips for Hiring an Illustrator

The above link is specific to children’s book author’s, but has some great general info as well.

Most illustrators will be more than happy to license their work to be sold for profit, and this is a wonderful way to sell something unique that no one else has, while also supporting an artist – doesn’t get any better than that!

Here are some illustrated products from our clients (all illustrations and images by the respective business owners):

Sea Urchin Studio's mermaid mug
Sea Urchin Studio’s mermaid mug
Fomato's illustrated greeting cards
Fomato’s illustrated greeting cards
I Heart Gut's illustrated t-shirts
I Heart Gut’s illustrated t-shirts

Finding an illustrator who doesn’t charge royalties

You may be able to find an illustrator who is new enough to the business that he/she won’t charge you royalties (obviously not recommended!), but the tradeoff will be that the person may be less experienced overall, and won’t give you the quality of work that we could. Taking advantage of this type of situation is not fair to the artist, and is detrimental to the industry as a whole, which is why we’re strict about licensing work correctly. P.S. Please never do this.

Purchasing royalty-free illustration artwork

You can purchase “royalty-free” illustration, which is clip art, and you are likely to also find it on other peoples’ projects. It wouldn’t be unique to you, and you couldn’t control who else used it, or how they used it.

Royalty free image licenses cannot be tracked. This means it’s possible someone else can use it, too, and there’s no way to predict who, when or where that might be. It may not make a difference if you are using an image on a personal blog, but it could make a big difference if you are using the image in advertising in your business and a competitor uses the same image.

Robin Noelle, Definition of a Royalty Free Image

Commissioning “work for hire” illustration

Another option is to commission “work for hire” illustrations, where the illustrator works directly for your company, and retains no rights to the illustration work herself. This could easily end up being more expensive than paying royalties, depending on how many illustrated products you end up selling.

The client can publish the work wherever and whenever it wants to, including reselling rights to others. [For illustrators:] Unless you receive permission from your client, you cannot do anything yourself with your work.

– Linda Joy Kattwinkel, What is Work Made For Hire?

Hiring a professional illustrator

What can you do if you have a great illustrated product idea, but no illustration talent or experience of your own? Hire an illustrator! It’s a thrill to see your vision come to life as you collaborate together with your illustrator.

If you feel like illustrations would spruce up your website, stationery, packaging, or products themselves, please get in touch with me.

Our pricing is competitive, we have a wide range of styles, and we can get everything done for you, a service you won’t get from an illustration agency. Logo, website, packaging, photography. You’ll be all set without having to contract out multiple different workers or teams. Oh, and it will be fun, too!

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