Business Bevies: Royalties and why you should charge them

Photo by Chris Murray. Used with permission.

Let’s face it. After being in the creative business for over 25 years, I’ve seen it all. Nothing really surprises me anymore. Recently, I saw a conversation on a social media network geared toward historic costume professionals who design, create, and/or provide research and garments for large companies. The issue was they never received credit for their work and did not know why.

Sadly, this is a pretty common practice and there are a variety of reasons for it. Unions are a large factor. Unions are powerful conglomerates that protect their members by advocating for fair wages and universal working conditions. In addition, unions advocate for companies to only hire union members. This is not necessarily a bad thing except annual membership fees are ridiculously high. And being a member of a union does not guarantee you get hired on for a project.

One trick of the trade is for union costumers to contract or buy from non-union creatives and treat the transaction as if one is buying supplies. This works well for creatives who are just getting started, use the industry as an auxillary form of employment, want to build connections in the field, or simply do not want to join a union. However, the trade off is your work goes uncredited as you now become a vendor rather than a creative or designer. Under no circumstances does a buyer even have to acknowledge you.

More unscrupulous creatives can also pass your work off as their own. While this is ethically alarming, legally it is not. This is because creative property laws are vague and are inconsistent on an international level. Creative property laws rarely protect “articles of everyday use” such as clothing, furniture, pottery, some textiles, etc. The legal water becomes even muddier when one sells his/her work to a buyer. Does the buyer now own just the object as is? Has the buyer purchased the object with the ability to deconstruct it and replicate it? Does the buyer now own the idea behind the object? US laws are weak on these topics and as a creative, one must always assume the answer is “Yes.”

So what can you as a creative/or designer do?

Charge a royalty.

Royalties are a form of payment paid to an established brand or designer for the use of their work. The key here is ESTABLISHED BRAND or NAME. Royalties are a “right to use” fee and typically pertain to intellectual property (works that can be trademarked, patented, or copyrighted). Royalties protect both the buyer and the seller from claims of improper use. One could possibly argue that an object created under a trademark could be eligible for a royalty.*

The benefit of charging a royalty here is you are financially compensated for your ideas. Even though they are not written down in pen and ink, your “article of everyday use” is indeed a product of your intellect, talent, and skill. And for this, you should be compensated. Writers, composers, fine artists, and graphic designers receive royalties all the time. Why shouldn’t you?

But I am not an attorney nor do I pretend to be one. I am a business owner and a creative. I understand the rules of the free market. But I also know the value of my work. By charging a royalty, you send a clear and concise message to the industry that you feel your work has merit, you demand creative respect, and there is more to what you do than just “sell stuff.”

However, it is up to you as a creative whether or not you feel the need to require a royalty and whether or not you are willing to let clients to pass you by if they are not willing to pay it.

*All comments are my opinion and not meant to be interpreted as legal advice. For more information about royalties, licensing, trademarks, and unions please visit your local creative property rights attorney or small business administration.

Business Bevies is a series designed to address small business topics for creatives.

About Susan

Hi! My name is Susan and I am a historian, seamstress, teacher, mother, and wife. My passion for history has manifested itself in the art of recreating clothing from different periods of time. Growing up in the American South, I am heavily schooled in the art of recreating clothing from the 19th century. After nearly a decade of immersing myself primarily in the Victorian period, I found the need to branch out and explore other periods of time. However, it is my connection with the American South and the clothing of rural America that continues to be the driving force behind my designs.