How to protect your ideas as an illustrator

Once upon a time I had an illustration client.

They were a producer for a production company I would draw storyboards for on almost a monthly basis.

One day they asked me to design seven characters to use in their internal newsletter for their employees and clients.

A week later I sent them the characters and they loved them. No revisions. End of story.

So I thought.

About a year later the producer emailed me after having some success with one of their films at a film festival.

They told me while they were at the festival they had a meeting with an animation studio loved the characters I made.

The producer wanted to know if I would make more formal turn-arounds and expression sheets of the characters. As they wanted to build them out as puppets or 3D so they could put a pilot show together. (RED FLAG)

Here’s the kicker… the producer already got funding to make a pilot show.

My whole body went numb as I read this email.

I opened my Google Drive and searched for the contract from when I made those characters.

There’s NO WAY I would have given them exclusive rights to my characters.

I double checked the contract and felt relief.

In the “Usage Rights” I clearly stated they could ONLY use the characters in their newsletter.

I still owned the copyrights.


I emailed back saying how great of an opportunity it was.

How open I was to being a partner with them, but how we would also have to negotiate a more formal licensing agreement. As they only had rights to use the characters in their newsletter.

I kid you not, 30 seconds after sending that email they replied…

They were actually upset.

Going on to explain they weren’t interested in licensing. Saying how they would rather hire someone else to create different characters they would own outright.

So what happened here?

They were actually wanting me to sign another agreement to be a “work for hire” to make make turnarounds and expression sheets on my original character designs.

If I had signed a new agreement saying I was a “work for hire”, they would immediately own 100% of the rights of those characters.

Yikes, no way.

NEVER give up your your ownership of copyright to a client.

A lot of illustrators do this without even knowing.


By signing a contract stating they’re an “employee” or a “work for hire”.

If you do, you’re giving up ALL your copyright ownership.

Just because someone paid you to make illustrations doesn’t mean they own the copyright of your illustrations.

UNLESS, you agreed to adopt a “work-for-hire” or “employee” status instead of an “independent contractor” status.

For example, when you work for an animation studio or advertising agency in-house, you will sign an employment agreement categorizing you as a “work-for-hire”. This means all the copyrights for everything you create at work is owned by your employer.

But even freelance illustration clients will try to give you their contract with the same “employee” and “work for hire” wording.

Instead, you want to classify yourself as an “independent contractor” in your contract. This legally separates you from company.

You should NEVER sign anything that asks you to adopt a “work-for-hire” or “employee” status if you want to retain your copyrights.

If your potential illustration client requests you change “independent contractor” to “work-for- hire” in your contract… RUN.