Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Benefits of Ownership

Two comics, two creators, two different outcomes.

A couple of things popped up this week which show, by contrast, the benefits of ownership.

Jeff Smith is a former animator who is the creator of Bone and RASL. Bone began in the '90s as a self-published comic book distributed to comics shops. Since then, Smith has collected the comics in a series of graphic novels and a one volume edition. Scholastic Books reprinted the series in colour and later this year, there will be a one volume colour edition.

Smith had a movie deal with Nickelodeon for Bone, but Nickelodeon dragged things out Smith and Nickelodeon parted company. Later, Smith made a deal for Bone with Warner Bros. The experience with Nickelodeon made Smith more demanding, and Warner Bros. agreed to his terms.

Now, Smith's latest comics series RASL has also been sold to Hollywood.

The week, the depositions in the copyright termination case brought by the Jack Kirby estate against Marvel were made public. The case turns on whether Kirby's work was at the direction of the company or if Kirby was a creator who sold his work to Marvel. The waters are muddy as the legal arrangements in the comic book business in the 1960s were shockingly casual.

Regardless of the legal decision and one's own opinion, Kirby is definitely the designer of The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Thor, Ant Man, Nick Fury, The X-Men, and the many villains and supporting characters who filled the stories that he drew for these characters.

Kirby was way more prolific than Jeff Smith in terms of the number of his creations and the number of pages he drew. Yet Smith is a millionaire and Kirby never received a nickel beyond what he was paid for each individual page.

Because Smith owns Bone, he has been able to repackage it and profit from it each time. He's been able to merchandise it and license it to other media. He will be able to do the same with RASL and will be an executive producer of the film.

Kirby owned nothing of what he created at Marvel, unless the termination of copyright suit determines otherwise. Just using the Hulk as an example, the work has been reprinted countless times, been an animated TV series, a live action TV series, two feature films and countless toys, posters, etc. Kirby was not compensated for any of this.

As much as we love animation, it is a team sport. It takes a lot of people and a lot of money to make a film. That leaves animation creators pitching their ideas to corporations in order to get their ideas funded, and the corporations routinely take ownership. A first-time creator has no leverage to gain a percentage of the profits, merchandising or to reserve certain rights. In this regard, animation creators resemble Jack Kirby more than they resemble Jeff Smith.

However, if you can establish ownership of your property and demonstrate that it has an audience, you can continue to control and to profit from your work. That probably means working in a medium other than animation to start with, but given Hollywood's current mindset about sequels and pre-sold properties, it's probably more likely you'll get an animated film made by creating something outside animation than inside it.

Jeff Smith could take advantage of different economic circumstances in the comic book field in the '90s than Jack Kirby had in the 1960s. And with all due respect to Kirby, Smith has a better head for business than Kirby ever had. That's the point. I'd be hard pressed to name anyone who worked in popular culture in the 20th century who was more fertile or prolific than Jack Kirby. Smith, by comparison, is a lightweight. But because Smith maintained ownership of his work, he maintained more control of it and made more money from it than Jack Kirby. That's the benefit of ownership.


Martin Juneau said...

Without been a Bone fan, i can understand the Jeff Smith's success he accomplish since he can use his creations himself tough i didn't notice it before. Even the French-Belgium comics-artists of before and today don't touch a large part of solds albums and characters' rights because i think the Europpean copyrights laws is totally the opposite to the ours in a matters of ownerships. Nevermind, the situation stays the same today. Do owenrship ourself is often better and less risky than encourage corporations and profiteers to steal our works and rights. I thinkin to registered my first comic to copyrights but which option you can give me without feel to spend a thousand of dollars for just registered my comic album?

Mark Mayerson said...

Martin, if you search online for copyright registration for whatever country you are in you will find out the fees. In Canada, the fee is $50 for submitting online and $65 for submitting by mail. In the U.S, the fee ranges between $35 and $65.

I'm sure that the fee is similar in most countries.

Martin Juneau said...

Thank you Mark. That's really helps me!

Brubaker said...

I'm thinking of how in Japan the copyrights for comics is commonly a dual-ownership between the creator and the publisher. When such works becomes animated for TV the copyright is shared between the studio that made it, the network that paid for it, plus the creator and the publisher.

If the creator is successful enough they can just own it outright (and there are a few who are)

I'm not entirely too sure how the copyright law in Japan differs from the America's, but I think this setup is more fair.

Murray Bain said...

amen, Mark. Creator rights are very important.
I worry about this generation because of software and plug-in installs, they are used to scrolling through a lot of legal jargon and clicking "I agree."

here's a great bit on animation contracts by gene dietch no way you'd get a deal this straight forward nowadays, but it's worth a shot:

there is also the other side, getting on too high of a rights horse, a 100% of nothin' is nothin'. If the network puts up all the dough, you get a small piece on the other side (15% in L.A. tops!), and a high end job on the production if your capable.
It's better as a young creator to tough it out and make a graphic novel or webcomic the way YOU want, and get it optioned because it's a hit with an audience, than to go through the hellish pitch process and development deal.
also waving to your imaginary fans in the mirror before you make frame one of the soon to be classic masterpiece is also a common delusion.

how many animators in canada can actually say they "created" a hit show?
Sean Scott and Jon Izen come to mind of RECENT people. but it's a bit like the animation equivalent of a michael jordan. Not everyone can be the captain.

Most shows are the product of deeper pockets- rights distributors who subcontract development, then schmooze them into fruition by jet setting to trade shows like Mipcom in the south of france to get co-pro deals in place. Creator driven? more like deal driven.
this biz is way to complex for a series sequential doodles by a bunch of frazzled artists.And it's very easy to confuse the "how" with the "why".

Joe Murray has an excellent book:

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
Excellent article as usual.

While your observations are correct, the costs and difficulty of launching a creator controlled intellectual property, whether it be comic book, film/TV or online can be staggering.

Assuming that a creator has more than one idea in his/her head, it might be worth sacrificing a few in order to build a name and following for the creator controlled IPs.

Corey said...

Make something everyone will want, without someone else's money. If you get a large enough fanbase / audience, you will have more sway over your property once the big wigs approach you wanting a slice.

Steve Schnier said...

@ Corey:
Easier said than done. Much easier. Creating something is easy. Ideas are cheap. Getting it out there, promotion, distribution, etc., cost money.

Even in todays digital age where online distribution is available at the click of a button, creators still have to fight the tidal wave of material (mostly crap) which is uploaded every second.

Getting your work noticed is only the first step.

Corey said...

@ Steve

If you make something that people HAVE to see, then those people will pass it around for you. The crap is crap because nobody cares to share it.
Nobody needs corporate money any more.

I understand that it is in fact easier said than done though. Thanks for the reply.

Rodney Baker said...

You stated, 'Kirby was not compensated for any of this.' and I'd have to quibble with this.

If you had written "Kirby was not properly compensated." I doubt anyone could argue against that assertion successfully. The entire case appears to be framed by what constitutes being properly compensated or attributed for a creative work.

The fact is that Kirby was compensated and to say otherwise is an error that invites the law to favor the companies Kirby worked for at the time the properties where created.

A small quibble perhaps but I believe it to be an important distinction.

- Wishing you all the best in your efforts, Rodney

Mark Mayerson said...

Rodney, Kirby was not compensated for non-comics use of his work or reprints of his work. That is not an exaggeration, it is a fact. The page rate he received was his final payment for his work and if the work was later used as the basis for animation, live action or toys, he received no additional money whatsoever. If his artwork was used on packaging, he received no additional money.

Until such time as a court decides that Kirby is entitled to a share of the copyright for his work at Marvel, Marvel is legally free to do exactly what it did during Kirby's lifetime: continue to use Kirby's artwork and ideas in any way they choose without paying compensation.

Which is why ownership is so important.