Keep Your Copyright – Agent Focus with Harry Lyon-Smith

Harry Lyon-Smith – Director of IllustrationX Agency

Unfortunately, illustrators are increasingly being asked to sign away their copyright, with more commissioners asking for a copyright assignment as part of their contracts instead of licensing. Agreeing to copyright assignments sets the expectation that other illustrators will do the same, which damages our foundation as a licence-based industry. Therefore, it can be great to have someone fight your corner.

Like the AOI, Illustration Agent’s are no stranger to negotiation and striving for Illustrator’s best interests. That’s why we reached out to Director of IllustrationX, Harry Lyon-Smith to chat about our ‘Keep your Copyright’ Campaign. Read below to hear what Harry had to say about empowering Illustrators to succeed and protecting their rights whilst working with clients

Could you tell us a little about IllustrationX and what your agency ethos are? 

Well, the agency was first formed in 1929 and known as the Kathleen Boland Studio, it became the Garden Studios in 1970 with John Havergal at the helm, and Illustration Ltd in 1997 after John retired. The Agency has been broadening its wings steadily over the years and with the advent of digital communications and the internet it has been great fun taking our talent to new markets around the world. We have been in the States for over the 20 years, and our business there is an important one, which along with our other offices around the world makes up the majority.

Gone are the days of national borders, language is hardly an issue with the translation tools available, so ‘Connecting You to a World of Illustration’ is our strap line for clients and our internal measuring stick is ‘Representing brilliant artists, brilliantly’.

Oh and we have a sort of side passion, growing trees (via WeForest.org). For 8 years we have put 1% of our revenue (through 1% for the Planet) to this and so far around 1.6 million trees are living that might not have before. Building on the recognition that the human race has got itself and most of Nature into a potentially catastrophic pickle, we have applied for and await BCorp accreditation so that we are bound to always act with good purpose to society and the environment. Business as a force for good is our motivation, or as a wise person said ‘The purpose of business should be to profitably solve the problems of people and planet.’

How do you empower your artists to succeed? 

By making sure that the portfolio is looking outstanding, and we maintain that for each artist, by formally having 4 sit down meetings a year with all the agents to discuss and brain storm opportunities, this we then further develop with the artist. Naturally lots of other conversations happen between the artists and agents during the year which will spark ideas, but these 1/4ly meetings safeguard the development and opportunities.

Then, with the backing of a world class agent team, we take the portfolios to market, all around the world. We have developed a significant audience one way and another which blesses us with many hundreds of enquiries a month from both existing and new clients.

Has there ever been a situation when you accepted a copyright assignment for an artist and why did you do this? 

Yes. When a client insists on a full copyright buyout, if their fee is reflective and the artist is in agreement, we will. In the UK and Europe, copyright is respected more than elsewhere, and it tends to be protected contractually.

In the US there is significant adoption of the ‘Work for Hire’ contract which clients are not able to move from. Many ‘Major Players’ are black and white about their ownership of all commissioned content and they don’t seem to move from that position for the most part.

As an Agent, what are your thoughts on copyright assignment? How do these impact the Illustrators on your roster? 

We always try and preserve copyright ownership for our artist’s work, so we don’t like selling it…doing all we can to find ways the client gets all the uses they need and to protect their interests, whilst preserving the property in the artist’s name. 

Negotiating extensive licences can be hugely lucrative for the creator, and rightly so. The client is undoubtedly making great profits from their use, so it is fair. 

When I started in 1985, there was little usage negotiation and all rights were sold, but soon after, thanks to the AOI and weirdly the stock image industry, clients got used to licences for images.

How do you negotiate for higher fees and fairer licence terms? How could artists do this for themselves? 

The holy trinity of licence, territory and time. Even before clients say what they would like, get in with what you want once you understanding the clients’ needs, this makes it quite easy to structure a licence that is fair to them, as well as to you. With all the resources of the AOI, finding a fair rate is not the challenge it used to be.

Very often clients have a standard initial position, which if it is not acceptable (and it rarely is), then your position must be proffered. Again often they have a number of options so it may be quite straight forward. 


Many thanks to Harry Lyon-Smith from IllustrationX for his time and answers.

You can see more from AOI Industry Members, IllustrationX via their Website and Instagram.


18th January 2022
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