The Licensing Dilemma
Licensing art has become a very big business indeed – for some. But it’s one that as artists we all need to pay careful attention to, as it can so easily become overwhelming and leave you wondering if you’ve been taken advantage of while innocently attempting to advance your career. This is actually the second time I’ve encountered this type of licensing dilemma, but on this occasion the stakes were considerably higher, so much more dilemmery, if you will. A couple of years ago when the first one came knocking, I was still very green and possibly a tad too eager. I was the perfect object of affection. I had a shiny new toy and I was working exceptionally hard to be noticed. But despite the experience gained during the previous experience, I found myself over thinking all the scenarios I now knew could become a part of it. Let me explain.
The majority of my sales come as a result of the endless self promotion I do to attract the attention of collectors, interior designers, architects and art consultants. This is serious hamster wheel stuff and the bane of a creative person’s life. I was not born to be a sales person!
The other day, I received an email from a consultant informing me that the designer of a new public space she was working with in Dubai really liked the style of my work. They wanted to know what it would it cost to license two of my images. I froze when I heard the ‘L’ word. The last time someone licensed my work they promised me the world if I gave them a good deal. I played the eager card and guess what, the world is still at large! So in this situation there are a ton of questions that instantly leap into one’s mind, not the least being how do I find out what to charge for a license? These pieces are going to be 6 times bigger than anything I’ve ever printed and in a much visited venue. Does the size or location of the end product make a difference? Should I be asking more? Or should I ask less just to make sure I get the contract? Will they take me seriously if I don’t ask a lot? Will they counter, or just blow me off? Should the rate be more because it’s part of a limited edition? Is there a budget I could be privy to that might give us a clue? And then there’s the age old trust and control issue: what will they print on and will the quality be acceptable to me as the creator.
I Googled for hours. Nothing really covers all the details. Getty Images has a helpful quotation system in place, but I know that their rates also tend to be a bit low. Taking a deep breath I wrote the consultant a letter mentioning slightly higher prices but accentuating the uniqueness of my work and the fact that my editions are limited, and asking if she could give me a better idea of what her budget was. She liked the prices I came up with, but apparently there was no budget yet and ‘yes we do add our cut on top.’ We agreed to Skype to try to narrow it down some. That was when I was confronted with the twist. During the call she casually mentioned: “This is a very prestigious project, so maybe you should quote for an exclusive or commissioned work. “And it is four images, not two: two 16’x12′ and two 11×11′.”
I had an OMG moment as I know nothing about commission pricing either but I was also elated by the thought that the amount of images required had just doubled. I immediately called a few experienced folks I knew. Thankfully, Henry Rowan, a truly extraordinary fine art photographer, responded very quickly with some excellent, very down to earth thoughts based purely on common sense: “Option 1: Take your own retail price for a piece that size, deduct your printing and framing expenses and that’s their price. Option 2: Work out a square footage rate for your work based on sizes you know. Option 3: Aim high – remember, a commissioned name photographer could cost upwards of $100,000 before taking a single shot. And Option 4: Be bold! Ask if they’d like you to ‘personalize’ the work by shooting it in Dubai. Oh, and don’t forget you’d need an assistant – wife or girlfriend; failing those, I’d be happy to stand in!”
The dilemma mist began to clear and my mood lightened considerably. I did some quick math and threw together the commission proposal, adding an explanation for why the numbers might seem high – something Henry had explicitly warned me not to do. Why do I question my value? I have no idea.
Two agonizing days passed and finally came the response: “They won’t pay that for the images. I can’t tell you what our costs would be. There is no budget yet. Let’s work on a non exclusive.”
Ugh. Back to the drawing board and that ever lingering question: What exactly is my art worth? I decided to try out Henry’s per square foot idea. Eventually I came up with what I thought was an acceptable arrangement for all. I hastily sent off the revised proposal – almost half the previous one – and held my breath until the following morning. Their response? “This sounds good.” What?!! I was still so worked up I could barely heave a sigh of relief.
But unfortunately I now have to wait even longer. The project doesn’t start until the end of the year. Yes, I am painfully aware that a lot can happen between now and then. But come what may, I learnt how to construct a licensing deal under pressure and more importantly, I learnt how to be happy with the decision I made. Next time around, the experience won’t be so dilemmerish. At least I hope not!