Stop the exploitation of freelance illustrators, says The Bright Agency

The founder of an agency representing self-employed creatives is pushing for better recognition of illustration as a “long-term career”, and protection over issues such as late payments and plagiarism.

Stella McCartney kids packaging, by Stevie Gee — a winner in the World Illustration Awards 2018, run by the Association of Illustrators

The Bright Agency is pressing the UK Government to increase legal protection for freelance illustrators, who are regularly “exposed to exploitation”, according to the business’ founder, Vicki Willden-Lebrecht.

The Bright Agency is a group of specialist agents, working across children’s publishing, art licensing and illustration for design and advertising. Its agents represent freelance illustrators, designers and authors, and help them across areas including marketing, contracts, accounting and copyright law.

Willden-Lebrect, founder at The Bright Agency and a graphic designer by trade, has made her case for illustrators’ rights as research has found that the illustration industry is overworked and underpaid, with three quarters of those surveyed having previously worked for free.

Other big issues are around late payments and lack of clarity around how to price work. The research shows that 70% say they had invoices paid late in 2018, while only 11% demand a deposit from clients up-front, and 57% do not feel confident estimating fees for clients.

Tax credits, training budgets and copyright

Emojiworld for Eyeyah!, by Esther Goh — a winner in the World Illustration Awards 2018

Willden-Lebrect has so far lobbied Government through The Parliamentary Review, a website promoting best practice for policy makers and business leaders. She is calling for several reforms to be made to laws affecting creatives, including new tax credits for freelancers, grants for training and increased copyright protection.

Tax credits are Government pay-outs giving extra money to people who need it. Working tax credits are currently given to those who work for an employer or are self-employed but earn a low income, though not everyone is eligible.

Grants would allow illustrators to do profession-specific training and career development for free while increased copyright protection would enable them to avoid exploitation through misuse and plagiarism, and make it easier to claim royalties if a piece of work is used multiple times.

Help with putting together contracts

National Treasures John Lewis campaign, by Paul Thurlby — a winner in the World Illustration Awards 2018

Willden-Lebrecht has also called for better moderation of the illustration commissioning process. She is pushing for client-side businesses, such as magazines and book publishers, to have “qualified staff” who know how to write artists’ contracts, rather than relying on “junior administrators” who “leave the legal work down to the illustrator”. These staff should be trained in putting together contracts, she says, which should lay out clear terms and conditions before the work begins.

“Illustration never seems to be protected by intellectual property (IP),” she says. “An author or advertising agency often holds the IP as they had the original ‘idea’ or ‘concept’, while illustrators are simply commissioned to ‘add value’ or to ‘illustrate’ something that already exists as a newspaper article, an advert or a book cover. Therefore, ownership of the work falls away from illustrators.”

Clients benefit from illustrators’ lack of knowledge

No Trousers Tube Ride All Summer, by Andreea Dobrin — on show at London Transport Museum’s Poster Prize for Illustration exhibition

She adds that there needs to be more awareness of the rights that illustrators have already, which are not commonly known.

“There are structures in place like royalties and licensing terms which can be used by artists and illustrators, if they know how,” she says. “This is where having an illustration agent really helps. Often, illustration adds value to sales, such as with children’s books, and this is where the artist needs to know that they should be paid a higher fee and rewarded through royalties, rather than accepting the same fee for ongoing commissions.”

She adds that a lack of knowledge is rife, and that illustrators should seek advice from agents and industry bodies such as the Association of Illustrators (AOI) and the Society of Artists Agents (SAA), which “really care about artists and work hard for their rights”.

“Clients love working with un-agented artists as they get much better deals,” she says. “I worry that a lack of knowledge exposes creatives to unfair treatment, and also sets the norm for clients to exploit them.”

Businesses should not see illustration as a “hobby”

Windrush, by Eliza Southwood — gold prize winner at London Transport Museum’s Poster Prize for Illustration

Alongside pushing Government and encouraging illustrators to educate themselves on their rights, she adds that the creative industries have a responsibility to promote “fair practice”. She says that businesses that commission illustrators, such as design studios and publishing houses, need to commit to fair treatment, and regularly talk about the importance of the discipline.

“The perception of freelance illustration needs to change, from seeing it as a ‘hobby’ industry to a long-term career,” she says. “It needs to be valued and respected as a creative field. Companies currently use the expectation that illustrators will work for free as a form of bargaining chip or negotiation, telling freelancers that ‘it’ll be good for exposure’. These businesses need to be leading by example.”

Willden-Lebrecht is also a director at the AOI, which has announced that it will launch a campaign in the coming months offering freelance creatives advice and guidance on issues such as copyright infringement and pricing.

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