Copyright and IP: artwork dispute


So I was about a third of the way illustrating a book for a friend when we started having the contract and copyright talk that we should have had day 1, and we just couldn’t come to an agreement.

She felt I needed to retroactively sign a work for hire and sign the copyright over and I offered an art licensing agreement but we couldn’t agree and now we are dissolving the project.

My question is:

She wants her money back, and if I return her first installment, am I able to use the artwork I created both in my portfolio and my online art shop? For instance, I created forest scenery I could turn into a print and the characters I designed are everyday forest creatures (foxes, birds, bears), that I can see as stickers, etc.

Am I able to do this since it the art is not tied to her story any longer? There are some niche parts I don’t think I could use like one of the characters was a bear in a leather jacket and there’s a map I drew that is very specific to her story.

I am just wondering how to go about this so we both win and lose, I’ve already spent almost 50 hours on this project.

Thank you for any thoughts and knowledge!

Here’s the link to your first post about this.

I never accept work from friends or family. Mixing business with people you love isn’t worth it — they’re more important that money. However, I have become good friends with clients, but since the friendship started out with business, all the kinks were worked out.

As explained in your other thread, you CANNOT retroactively sign a work-for-hire agreement; it wouldn’t be legally valid. It doesn’t matter that she wants you to sign it — it would be unenforceable, meaningless, and bordering on fraud. A work-for-hire agreement could be signed for what takes place going forward, but not for work already done. However, it would be easy enough to sign over the copyright to her for the previous work.

Ask yourself this question: What is most important? Your friendship with this person or the money and your illustrations? If this is a good friend, you’re about to lose it. Is it worth it to you to push the issue and lose this friend? To tell you the truth, she sounds selfish and only thinking of herself and her interests, but not yours. If I’m reading what you said correctly, she doesn’t sound like a friend I would want. If you want to salvage this (seemingly one-sided friendship), you’ll need to back down and sign over the copyright.

Again, do you want to salvage the one-sided friendship, or do you want to stand up for what’s legally yours? Or do you just want to be done with it and move on?

For some reason, you’re resisting the fact that the work is already yours. You own it and will continue to own the copyright whether you keep her money or return it. I’ll say it again: YOU ALREADY OWN THE WORK. The money she paid you was for the time you spent and an implied agreement that she could use that work for her book. You’re an independent contractor; you didn’t create it under a work-for-hire agreement, and you own the work. All she owns is the license to use your work. If you refund the money, you’ll still own the artwork, can do what you want with the art, and she will have no right whatsoever to use it.

Unless it’s part of an effort to maintain the friendship, you’re under no obligation to give the money back. You spent time on it at her request. She purchased that time and used it. It’s impossible for her to give it back.

I said in the previous thread that these sorts of self-published books by first-time authors rarely amount to much. Statistically speaking, the chances of this book becoming a best-seller are practically zero. Personally, I wouldn’t use up a second thought considering complicated licensing agreements, future royalties, and that sort of thing because those future payoffs are extremely unlikely to materialize.

If it were me, I’d simply draw up a written agreement transferring the copyright of the already done work to her as a consequence of the payment you’ve already received. (Note: this is not a work-for-hire agreement; it’s a copyright transfer agreement.)

Going forward on any future work, I’d make sure to write up another contract stipulating the exact nature of the project, how much you will be paid, and that upon payment, the copyright to the work is transferred to her. I would also write into the contracts that, even though the copyrights transfer to her upon payment, you still keep perpetual rights to use the illustrations for your self-promotional purposes.

As already mentioned, she sounds selfish and willing to shortchange her friend for her own benefit. If she doesn’t agree to transferal-upon-payment copyright agreements, not only is she selfish, but she’s also a little stupid. At that point, I’d keep the money for the work already done, refuse to take on additional work, and say goodbye to the friendship.


This was very helpful,

I appreciate the way you break down my post and answer all the pieces.

I have a little more clarity now and I think you’re spot on, for some reason I was being resistant that I own the work. I do, I spent a ton of time on it.

I don’t think I’ll pursue to continue the friendship, but leave it on amicable terms. It’s a friendship that was only rekindled due to this project.

And there’s a few other factors that red flag continuing to work with her.

Thank you for your responses!