Jul 31, 2013, 07:37AM

Who Owns G.I. Joe?

The ethics of work for hire.

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I own this essay I'm writing. No one can reprint it without my permission. If someone (improbably) wanted to turn it into a film or a hit pop song, they would pay me for the rights. I'm the one who created and controls it; if it’s unexpectedly wildly successful and makes millions, I'm the one who will benefit.

This makes intuitive sense; if you create something, it feels like it should be yours.

But it often isn't. Many of the most successful pop culture phenomena—Superman, Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, Dr. Who—aren't owned or controlled by their creators. They were done on a work-for-hire basis, which means that the company which commissioned or purchased the work can do with it as it will, and make money off it without necessarily recompensing the people who made it up.

Legality aside, work-for-hire feels wrong. If someone makes millions off a Spider-Man film, it seems like Steve Ditko should get some of that money, because it's his character, whatever the contracts might or might not say.

This is the point Mike Vosburg makes in a recent blogpost. Vosburg is a comic book artist. In the 1980s, he worked on the G.I. Joe comic book. Recently, IDW has reprinted a number of those comics. Vosburg didn't receive any money; he didn't receive any complimentary copies. He wasn't even officially informed that the book was being published. As he says in a letter to IDW, reprinted in his post, this sucks.

"My complaint is the publishing companies that reprint work by artists without paying any compensation to those people. I always find it amusing that the same folks who sit on panels at comicbook forums bemoaning the injustices that were done to Siegel and Schuster and Jack Kirby, et alia always have the same answer when they start publishing: we don't legally owe you anything if we have the rights to your work. I don't expect that to change, but I don't have to like it. Quite honestly I don't really want a discount, I just want to let you know what I think of your company. Great books, same old sharks running the place."

The publishers responded by saying that they had done everything they were required to do under the law… which is not exactly a refutation of Vosburg's point.

As indicated, I have some sympathy for Vosburg's position. But I also have at least some appreciation of where IDW is coming from. I often write on a work-for-hire basis. For example, I wrote this book, but I don't own it. The people who do own it can reprint it without paying me (maybe they have for all I know). I was recompensed once and that's it. No other income will be forthcoming… and I knew going in that no other income would be forthcoming. If someone buys the movie rights, I will get nothing.

Of course, no one is going to buy the movie rights to Water and Ice: Confronting Global Warming. The very idea is absurd. Which is part of why it makes sense to treat such things on a work-for-hire basis. I'm providing content, not creative or artistic spark. No millions are going to be made, so the fact that I wouldn't be paid if they did is largely irrelevant.

But how do you codify the line between my work-for-hire projects and what Vosburg is doing? Vosburg, after all, was working on corporate properties. And he states quite clearly that he feels no real personal ownership of or investment in the work; on the contrary, he says, "I think that the only real pornography I ever did was working on so many books that promoted violence as the best alternative to young men."

Part of the issue seems to be a general dissatisfaction. Vosburg suggests that he was never fairly compensated for work he did on the G.I. Joe animated series, for example. The money he received doesn't jive with what he feels his ideas and contributions were worth.

Some would say that the contracts are the contracts, and if you weren't willing to abide by the terms you shouldn't have signed the paper. In my experience, though, you don't really have a lot of options in these situations. I've had clients give me contracts that said that the work I was doing was work-for-hire when I knew that wasn’t really quite correct. But if you need the money and need to work, you tend to sign it because what else can you do? You've got bills now… and I don't have a lawyer on retainer.

The point of work-for-hire in general is to turn creative work into something like property that can be bought and sold and manipulated without regard to its origins. It's a way to turn art into content. As someone who is in the business of providing content in which I’m not particularly invested, I can see why work-for-hire is a useful and even in some ways necessary system. I can understand Vosburg's discontent too, though. If this thing you made with your heart and your hand has value, it seems like the heart and the hand that made them should be valued too.


—Noah Berlatsky (@hoodedu) blogs at Hooded Utilitarian.

  • I'd argue that what the artist got at the time was equivalent to what the art was worth at that time. The art didn't become valuable on its own. The companies who bought the rights invest millions to make the art worth more than it was. Millions in marketing, millions investing in film and television productions with no guarantees of being paid back. Actors get paid millions, directors get paid millions, food services for the sets get paid millions etc. Who is to say that the artist who first drew the art is any more or less responsible for the arts success than the actor or director, or marketer. As you say Noah, often times, the artist is in a literal publish or perish scenario. Is it worth it to them to sell their work at then current market value so they can have dinner, or do they save their work, get another job to pay for dinner, and manage the growth of a brand when they are better able to do so? Only the artist can decide. Too complain afterward because someone else was able to use an entirely different skill set in order to make the art more valuable just seems like the artist is trying to take credit for someone else's work.

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  • I'd say this is right on target, Texan. You sign a contract, you take the compensation offered. I guess there are varying circumstances, say when a band is taken advantage of by a crooked manager, but that's a different kettle of fish.

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  • Table, I don't think it's that different a kettle of fish, is the thing. Corporations have way more leverage in these cases; work-for-hire itself, the legal rules, are not always fair to the creative people (as you'd imagine they wouldn't be, given corporate lobbyists.)// The point is, what's legal is not always what's fair or right. That's true in a lot of cases, and I think this is sometimes one of them.

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  • Thanks TableMountain. Noah, why are you so afraid to examine opposing opinions? Why don't you give any value to the creative work of the actors, marketers, investors and food providers that take a mere image and make it into a multi-billion dollar enterprise?

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  • Noah, Thanks for the discussion on my blog topic. Please understand that this was not a rant about why I deserved more money after the fact. I accept that part of my job or I don't take the assignment. The real issue I was trying to make was about creative ownership. In our world it is easy enough to find a legal way to commit robbery. That doesn't make it moral. Will that change. I doubt it, but I think it deserves some discussion. After all, do you really think Tchaikovsky would have been happy using his music 200 years later to sell breakfast food.

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  • By the way, had I known food services on the sets were making millions I probably would have started working for them instead of doing storyboards. During the 30's a common labor practice was to offer work out of state at a high wage, luring thousands of candidates- who then found that the wage being offered was a fraction of what they expected. As the bossman said, "take it or move on...we arrest vagrants in this state."

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  • Thanks for responding Mike! And thanks for your original post; I'm still sort of trying to figure out what I think about these issues, so it was helpful to read your thoughts.

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  • Vozart, how were you robbed? My understanding from Noah's piece is that you performed a service for pay. Were you not a willing participant? As I stated earlier, was not the then current market for your work what you were paid? If not, why did you enter the contract and not save your work for sale at a later date when you would receive fair market compensation? Did you not receive any benefit by filling your resume with this experience and if so, did you factor that in when considering the value of your work? I ask these questions because both you and Noah repeatedly use words like rob and wrong. The people who purchased the art/ concepts, risked their own money (or money entrusted to them) and made the art/concept popular. Why should they be deprived of their just rewards for their creative work when it succeeds but have no help in covering the losses when it does not? I have never been one to suggest that the legal system and justice are at all related, but, I also don't get what it has to do with this situation. The value of your work when sold is not it's value today. Put another way, do Sutcliffe or Best deserve royalties from Sgt. Peppers because they were once a member of the Beatle's?

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  • Once again, I'm sorry you had a bad work experience, but I just don't understand your point of blaming contract law and am asking for clarification on your and Noah's assertions. If you and the buyer willingly agreed to a purchase price for your services, how did contract law rob you? If you were not willing to risk your money and time in the creative endeavour of making more money off your work why should you reap the rewards while taking none of the risk?

  • Texan, sorry to break it to you, but it seems like Berlatsky is boycotting your comments. Too bad, I like the exchanges.

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  • Think you are right AppleHead. Too bad. Noah thinks I'm a troll because I ask him questions that don't conform to his worldview. I've actually complimented his writing on numerous occasions and have tried to avoid the name calling to no avail. Oh well, his and his readers loss.

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  • Sorry Appleseed; I feel like the level of animosity had gotten too high.//At some point it's just best to stop.

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  • Noah, please feel free to re-engage once your animosity levels lower. I really would like to better understand your positions.

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  • Furthermore, I think if you re-read my comments, you'd realize that they were rather benign if one assumes a neutral tone which is how they were initially typed

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