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I am currently writing an ongoing comic series, along with a co-author. Some of the characters in the book were created by me, some by the co-author, and some by third parties. All characters in this discussion were created for this series and are not licensed from another property.

The publisher's contract is with me and I, in turn, have contracts with my co-author, artists, and other contributors. I am in the process of updating the latter set of contracts, for creators that have continuing ownership in one or more characters. Of course I will consult with a lawyer before finalizing them but I wanted to ask about common practice around collaborative works.

If there are derivative works (for example, marketing items like t-shirts or bobbleheads), or if the comic is adapted to another medium, what is the practice surrounding multiple character creators? This is common in the comics industry but I don't know how to set up this in the contract.

I am in the United States and the other character creators are in various states in the US. The publisher is in the UK. The comics are published in English and available internationally.

Looking for elements that would be useful to include in a contract.

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    Is there anything I ought to add? Yes, an actual lawyer that knows how to write a contract. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 30 at 23:30
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is asking for legal advice. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 30 at 23:31
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    @Amadeus and others. I've done a heroic edit on this question (with the OP's full permission). It's not an easy question to word. I do want to be clear this is not instead of getting legal advice. The purpose of the question is to figure out the standard practices so El Cadejo can write a draft to run past the lawyer. If this doesn't fix the question well enough to stay open, please comment with what else ought to be changed. Thanks. – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 31 at 4:38
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    We have a number of questions on the site about legality of various aspects of writing and publishing, including copyright and the issues surrounding libel/slander. There is ample precedence that questions about legal aspects of writing and publishing are on topic on the site. Coauthorship comes with specific challenges where another writer's previous experience may be helpful. That said, I do agree that a general answer cannot provide individualized legal advice; for that, as OP apparently realizes, an actual lawyer familiar with the relevant legislation is, of course, needed. – a CVn Aug 31 at 20:20
  • I don't think this is a legal question at all. It is not asking what legal terms mean, for instance. It is asking what terms are desirable for each party, and what terms are usual in a contract of this sort. Really, this is a business question: what rights to my intellectual property should I license to whom and what rights to the intellectual property should I licence from them. These are business questions. How to word a contract that actually implements the transfers and licenses you decide on is a legal question. The former is on topic, the latter is not. – user16226 Sep 24 at 17:23
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Note that there are two cases ou have to distinguish:

  1. characters that were made by some creator for you as part of a paid contract or hire.
  2. characters that you were allowed to use by the original creator based on some contract.

Type 1 characters are Works Made for Hire and as you hired them, you hold the copyright. You can make whatever derivatives you want with your copyrights.

Type 2 characters are usually licensed characters and you will have to refer to your original license about their use. You might need to obtain additional licenses for reuse and derivates. As far as I know, such characters often just make a short cameo and then never appear back and also don't make it to the adaptions to other media: While the gang of The BigBang Theory does appear in Supergirl Volume 5 Issue 1, we will never see them in any adaptation, as the holders of the Supergirl IP don't hold the TBBT license for more than this cameo (which might only have been possible as a fair-use?).

The most common practice in the comics industry is - shocking - Work for Hire. Anything made for the company that holds the copyright is company property.

However, the "I make, you print" approach is the core of the indie. We find it in many indie titles... and if we look at one of the large Publishers, their imprints: Vertigo had once been used to publish the Comic-Code non-conform stuff, but nowadays, DC uses it mainly to publish stuff that is not owned by DC but rather licensed. They don't do merch outside of the contract, and once their contract is up, they don't reference it with other works. AFAIK, they pay the main author in bulk, who then might have to distribute the earnings to pay for his license fees.

Licensing fees from the publishers come in basically 3 shapes: Bulk license (Pay X, be allowed to do Y for time Z) and royalties (Pay X for each sold issue of Y), or both combined.

  • I also edited the question to indicate that the characters are all original to the series. Thanks for pointing out the missing information in the question. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 1 at 3:25
  • Thanks for the advice, Trish. I will think about adding 'licensing' language into the contract. – El Cadejo Sep 1 at 18:38
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It's best to work out the terms for you guys now, as the comic book industry has all sorts of legal issues stemming from how characters were acquired as well as industry rules. Ever wonder why Wonder Girl wasn't in the first season cartoon of Young Justice despite her being a core member of the team? D.C. was in the middle of a legal nightmare with the whole "Wonder Woman" franchise and told the writers she was not viable until later... The writers subbed in Miss Martian to role as she was undeveloped in the comics but could fit the powers and relationship dynamic (notably being Superboy's love interest) and Wonder Girl's general character arc (both characters have some issues with just how willing they are to take questionable moral actions). Ironically, Miss Martian was created to fill in as a replacement for Superboy when he the use of the name was excised from comics for another legal matter (similar powers and a hidden dark background association with a villain).

Marvel is a bit more stable as most of the A-List titles were all created by the same guy (the old man who's always in the movies... though he didn't create anything). Of the big named characters in Marvel who weren't Lee's creations, only Captain America and Namor predate Lee's first issue of Fantastic Four... and Marvel owned them and Lee was a huge fanboy and wanted them back in comics.

Marvel's issues is that when the superhero movie craze started in 2000, Marvel wasn't attached to any studio where as DC is, so they licensed various franchises and their core characters out to different studios. This is why the X-men and Fantastic Four don't team up with the Avengers and Deadpool might mention the MCU films in dialog, but that's more because of his character knowing he's fictional and not any real in story connection. The Irony here is that Marvel read the tea leaves and saw that there was a demand for a big crossover movie and hype around D.C.'s Justice League project dating back to at least 2006, but Marvel actually found the winning formula first... but even then, there are legal issues... this is why there's never been a second Hulk Film in the MCU (the film with Ed Norton was a reboot to the 2003 film and fans generally loved the 2008 film... because it wasn't as terrible as the 2003 one and you could actually see the final fight), but Hulk can show up anywhere. Marvel can't have a film title with the word "Hulk" for legal reasons (Universal owns distribution rights to the title)... but they can have a character in a film named "Hulk".

In one case, Marvel go two well liked characters from sorting out this legal issue really quickly. The villain of the second Guardians of the Galaxy film was initially legally blocked from them because Fox had the character rights (packaged with the Fantastic Four). At the same time the Deadpool character "Negasonic Teenage Warhead" was initially going to be called "Cannon Ball" and Ryan Reynalds discovered the name was on the list of usable characters and it was too good not to have in a superhero comedy, but the cannon ball effects were already rendered. Marvel, Disney, and Fox sat down to discuss the issue and decided the change to NTW was okay for a return of Ego the Living Planet.

But all this just demonstrates that these issues were largely not thought about at the time the deals were made and the companies have some rules about what they can and cannot do with their characters (Like who can publish a comic about Captain Marvel and call it "Captain Marvel".). The best advice is that you work out the deal where you're all joint owners of the characters and can only reproduce them in licensed products if you both agree. If you and he want to go separate ways, make up new characters.

  • Hi, I upvoted your answer because it was well thought out and contained a lot of detail about legal issues with characters. But it's not really getting at the core of how to write a contract that deals with these things Specifically, El Cadejo wants to be sure that if he & another character creator go their separate ways that he can continue to use the characters. You can't replace characters easily when you're a year into a 5 year story arc. What happens if a creator dies and his/her estate doesn't want to negotiate? It's a mess. Nor does he want to lose control over his own characters. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 25 at 20:29
  • @Cyn: The thing is there's no write answer other than "figure it out now". This is only a handful of the legal drama surrounding comic book characters. I could write a book about notable cases and their affect on stories in the long term. The best advice is to get the contract drawn up with contingencies in mind. The issue on the death should be simple: agree that the surviving creator gets full rights, and upon his death, both estates share the rights (spreading the legal control over multiple parties). – hszmv Sep 26 at 16:57
  • I realize there are many ways to write contracts but it's hard for an indie author to figure out. I was hoping people have have done similar contracts might chime in. Or that perhaps there were good templates out there. OP will consult a lawyer of course but we don't have the funds to have one write multiple contracts from scratch. So far, all the additions to his current contract come from my non-legally-trained head. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 26 at 17:13

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