Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Creators Bill Of Rights 25th Anniversary

A Bill Of Rights For Comics Creators
As drafted at the Northampton Summit, 17 November, 1988, with contributions from: 
Steve Bissette, Ryan Brown, Michael Dooney, Kevin Eastman, Gerhard, Peter Laird,
Steve Lavigne, Jim Lawson, Larry Marder, Mark Martin, Scott McCloud, Ken Mitchroney,
Stephen Murphy, Richard Pini, Dave Sim, Eric Talbot, Rick Veitch and Michael Zulli.
(taken from Cerebus #116, November 1988)
(from The Creator Bill Of Rights, April 2005)
...There was a lot of debate about what rights Gerhard had which sort of blew up in their faces when I said that as far as I was concerned Gerhard had the right to reproduce his own work. If he wanted to do his own Cerebus trade paperbacks he had the right to do that without asking my permission because his work was on the printed pages and -- because the book was still in progress -- he also had the right to get someone to write and draw his Cerebus comic that he would do the backgrounds on. There was no way that Kevin and Peter -- or Richard Pini who was also at the Northampton summit -- were going to agree with that, but to me it was a basic ethical question. Gerhard started out getting a page rate, then he became a salaried employee (like me) and then he became a 40% partner in the company. Again, there would have been nothing illegal about just paying him $80 a page and getting him to sign a contract saying that I own everything he did, but to me it would have been unethical and it would have been progressively more unethical the more work that he did. When you have tied your fortunes to one book, as Gerhard had, and that situation goes on for more than two decades, you are -- again ethically, not legally -- entitled to share in the success of that book. I think it would be worth framing that in more specific terms -- how long you have to work on an established book before you get a share in the revenues, how large that share should be after how long a period of time and at what point you should get join ownership, and so on. But there was no interest in even discussing it. In fact I was just laughed at for bringing it up and Gerhard was treated as a joke by everyone else whenever I cited our business relationship as the most ethical way to do business in a creative partnership. Which I thought was very short-sighted. A successful comic book intellectual property is a long-term proposition, stretching over the course of decades. It doesn’t make sense to me to treat a decades-long creative participation in the same way you do a freelance assignment that someone knocks out over a weekend which, it seemed to me was what Kevin and Peter and Richard Pini chose to do with Mirage Studios and Warp Graphics. In that sense, yes, definitely there was a schism and there’s no doubt in my mind that it was seen as my fault because I wasn't flexible enough or I was too much of a purist. But, again, if I had caved in on the point and said that "Ethically it doesn't matter how you treat someone working on your intellectual property. That's up to you because it's your intellectual property," which was the consensus view, that would've meant that there was no one representing what I considered to be the more ethical position. It would certainly have been more lucrative on my part to just 'go along with the consensus': I could've kept my own salary and most of Gerhard's as well. But, I suspect that in that case Gerhard wouldn't have stuck around until issue 300. How many people in 2004 were still working on Elfquest and the Turtles who were working on them in 1988? This happened a lot. Steve Bissette used to say that I just went around forming these coalitions and then blowing them up. I think the record shows that I would stick to what I considered the more ethical position and when people saw that I couldn’t be persuaded to see things their way, they abandoned all discussions with me. And the reason, most times, that they abandoned all discussions with me was because they didn't want to think of themselves as people who made unethical or less ethical choices. The point to me was always the overriding ethic that was under discussion, not how unhappy it made someone else feel when I disagreed with them or how happy it would make them feel if I would abandon my position and agree with them. It didn't matter to me who was happy with me or unhappy with me. I had a larger obligation to make sure that I was setting what I saw as good ethical precedents for future creator-publishers to follow or to ignore as they chose.


Michael Grabowski said...

I think it can't be understated just how important a creative partner Gerhard was in the Cerebus project. Re-reading the early books makes it quite clear that Dave could not or would not produce a monthly comic that demanded so much of his time in researching and writing it if he also had to provide the sort of backgrounds that Gerhard could create. The last four fifths would have looked very different if he had. I love how Dave solved the problem with so much black space throughout much of High Society and then the white space of the latter HS and early Church & State issues, and no doubt he would have come up with creative solutions for other background needs, but the books as we know them are as good as they are because Gerhard did such great work for so long and that freed Dave to focus on writing it. A series of freelancing employees over a twenty-year period could not have made the book look better. I hope Gerhard benefited and continues to benefit from Cerebus being almost as much his life's work as it is Dave's. May their example of creative partnership and ownership, regardless of what it actually is at the moment, be one that is considered a historical one and a good one to follow for future such comics partnerships.

Anonymous said...

The Bill of Rights seems like a misplaced effort to me. I think the problem for creators is not a lack of initial legal rights, but a deprivation of rights through bad contracts and through a lack of bargaining power.

Many, if not all of the rights claimed in the bill are and were already protected under the Canadian Copyright Act or otherwise under Canadian law. Most of the listed rights would have been (and continue to be) covered by section 13 of the Copyright Act, which says that the author is the first owner of the copyright in his or her work. The default position of the Copyright Act is that creators have copyright in their own works.

Also, it seems redundant to feel the need to declare that you have the right to consult a lawyer in business transactions. Rest assured, this right exists. It sounds like the problem here was comics creators either not knowing or not asserting their rights.

The real overall problem is that creators must contract with somebody if they wish to disseminate their works, which means creators must grant at least some rights to others, or nothing can happen. The contracts have been the real problem, in that creators have been contracting out of all or most of their rights. Stating that creators start out with all creative rights is not a solution to that problem. There is nothing in the "Bill of Rights" that protects artists from signing bad contracts.

Furthermore, what Dave proposes from his relationship with Gerhard is irrelevant to the real issue of protecting creators from bad contracts, since ultimately, Dave’s decision to make Gerhard a partner was at Dave’s discretion, or a matter of Gerhard’s bargaining power in their relationship. That basically boils down to the same reasons Marvel or DC make their decisions, namely that they think it is in their business interests. Dave and Ger also agreed on when and on what terms to end their business relationship. It seems like Dave’s relationship with Gerhard was best handled between the two of them on a contractual basis and not through preexisting rules imposed from without. This is exactly how Marvel and DC prefer to do business.

So frankly, it’s no wonder that the other creators weren’t impressed with Dave’s ideas. Dave’s business decisions could easily be characterized not as high-minded morality, but naked self interest: namely, keeping Gerhard happy so that Dave could finish the book.

-Reginald P.

Anonymous said...

Minor, pointless quibble: Jim Lawson has been working on the TMNT since before 1988 and would have kept doing so if Pete hadn't sold out to Viacom.

That said, I can see both points of view. Using the TMNT as an example- Given that a lot of artists have gone through and done a lot of minor TMNT comics work, those guys shoulda got (and did get) page rates for doing an issue or two here and there. Jim, on the other hand, drew thousands more pages of the TMNT than Kevin and Pete ever did and created entirely what I consider the best TMNT comic book story (Blindsight). I had read that he and Steve Murphy (who had written a significant chunk of TMNT lore) got a share of the 60 million bucks Viacom paid for the IP, but I doubt he got a sum anywhere near what he was morally (or at least what I consider to be moral) entitled to get. Especially considering that Viacom now owns the literally thousands and thousands of story pages he wrote and drew, which are being reprinted and will likely be reprinted over and over again as long as some TMNT fan is there to buy them. I read an interview just after the TMNT were sold where he stated that he never got a raise on his page rate in the entire time he was working on those books- which is kind of amazing to me.

As for the Creator's Bill of Rights itself- I always felt like it was just a way to remind comic book professionals, newbies, and wannabes that your creativity has value and if you're not careful you may just end up buttfucked like Siegel and Shuster. Every bullet point on that list of 'rights' is in reference to the horrible things that happened to all of the greats who were foolish enough to trust their employers or timid enough to be bullied by them (or more accurately, too poor to afford a lawyer and too in need of work to say 'no'). "It could happen to YOU."