What is Art Licensing?

April 26, 2012

Artist Elf Art Licensing Basics by Natalie TimmonsSince I made the decision to launch myself into the art licensing world, friends and other artists and designers often ask me, “What is art licensing exactly?” This posts provides basic answers along with links to more extensive information on the subject.

Art Licensing Basics

In very simple terms, Art Licensing is a process where an artist “rents” their artwork to a client to use on certain products, in certain applications, and in specified geographic regions.  The beauty of this arrangement is that the artist retains the rights to their artwork and can sell the same piece of art to many different clients. The only restraints are the limitations the artist agrees to upon signing a licensing agreement with a client.

In Art Licensing, clients typically pay a royalty to an artist. The royalty is usually a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the licensed product. It can also be based on a fixed dollar amount per licensed product sold. In some cases, artists are also paid an advance against royalties.

How Art Licensing Differs from the Graphic Design Industry

Since my background is in graphic design and I am new to the art licensing field, I’ve discovered several differences between the two. In my mind, there are three major ways that art licensing differs from graphic design work: Goal of the Art, Rights of Ownership and Payment Structure.

1. Goal of the Art

In art licensing, the goal of the art is to enhance the look of a product. Clients purchase artwork to adorn the products they manufacture and sell to retailers. Products may include everyday items such as dishtowels, gift-wrap, stationery, textiles, apparel, paper goods, and more. The intent is that the art will make the product irresistible to consumers, who then buy the product, earning the retailer, manufacture and artist an income.

In graphic design, the goal is of the art is to enhance marketing communications materials (brochures, ads, logos, signage, website, etc.) in order to improve brand image and/or aid the client’s efforts to sell more products and services.

These are very generalized explanations and there are many exceptions. For example, graphic designers may be contracted on a work-for-hire basis to revamp a product’s overall design. This encompasses the artwork on the product as well as the product’s materials, shape, color, packaging and labeling.

 2. Rights of Ownership

With art licensing, the artist retains the rights to the original artwork. In graphic design, once the artist completes the design project (brochure, direct mail piece, print ad, logo, etc.) and has been paid in full, the client assumes all ownership of the artwork. This is because graphic design services are typically considered to be “work for hire.”

Again there are exceptions to these scenarios. For example with illustration & photography, many artists negotiate to retain the rights to their artwork while being a paid a flat fee for their use of their art in say a magazine article or on a billboard. While other illustrators and photographers serve clients on a work-for-hire basis, releasing all rights of ownership to the client once they’ve been paid in full for the project. In this later case, the client then owns the purchased photo or illustration and can use it anywhere and however often they choose.

 3. Payment Structure

The payment structure is also very different between the two industries. Graphic design services are typically considered to be works-for-hire. Designers are paid a flat fee for a project and/or are reimbursed for time spent on a project. Licensors (artists who license their artwork) are usually paid a royalty fee and/or an advance against royalties. In very rare cases, a licensor (artist) may agree to release all rights to their artwork and sell their artwork to a client for a flat fee (not recommended, but it happens).

Basic Art Licensing Terms

License – An agreement or “license” grants rights to another person or entity to use your art for (x). The (x) could be a particular product (dish towels) or a group of products (kitchen accessories).

Licensor – the owner of the image (you the artist).

Licensee – the one who is granted rights to the artwork (your client).

Licensed Property – the image (i.e. piece of artwork)

Royalty – A royalty is typically a percentage of the proceeds received from the sale of the licensed product.

Licensing Agreement – A contract with gives the licensee (your client) the right to use the licensed property (your artwork) for a specific purpose (on wrapping paper) for a limited time (two years) in a specified territory (United States).

Art Licensing Resources


Joan Beiriger’s on Art Licensing Blog - a must follow!

Art Licensing Blog by Tara Reed – a must follow!

All Art Licensing Blog by J’Net Smith

Maria Brophy’s Blog

The Moon from My Attic by Alex Colombo – I love her interviews of other licensing artists.

Art Licensing from Jim Marcotte

Greeting Card Design Blog by Kate Harper

Surtex Blog

Teleseminars & Podcasts

Accidental Creative by Todd Henry (Not specific to art licensing but definitely covers topics to help commercial artists face stay brilliant and balanced.

Art Licensing Teleseminars & (free) Monthly Ask Calls by Tara Reed – highly recommend!

Illustration Mundo


Art Licensing Info (Tara Reed)

Porterfield’s Fine Art Licensing Resources for Artists

The Business of Art Licensing by Lance J. Klass

Art of Licensing LinkedIn Group

All Art Licensing Newsletters


Licensing Art and Design: A Professional’s Guide to Licensing and Royalty Agreements by Caryn R. Leland

Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines

If you have more to add, please post a comment or email me to share your tip.