Notes on Licensing

I’m a big fan of automatic income, so I was excited to learn about CardsInk, a sort of Threadless-type site for greeting cards.  The web site made it seem so easy.  Submit a design, get votes, get paid.  I thought I would submit my Tanks design, so late this afternoon I signed up for an account.

I was dismayed to read in the user agreement, however (ALWAYS read the user agreement, even if it’s long), that if you submit a card design, CardsInk owns the license to it, exclusively, forever.  They only pay $100 for a successful design (plus a potential $50 for reprints), so in the end I had to say no.  Frankly, the amount of time I put into Tanks! is worth way more than $100 to me, and so is the potential profit from printing and selling the cards myself.  That might not be the case for hundreds of their other members, which is fine, but I find it a little underhanded that they make NO licensing info available before you sign up.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mrs. Grossman’s sent me a really generous licensing agreement today.  They agreed to let me make and sell my mandalas and prints, and to display them wherever I like for ten years for free as long as I credit them for the original sticker designs.  More than fair, I think.

They also posted one of the images to their Facebook page and commissioned a mandala with instructions to put on the wall of their factory store.  And they’re sending me free stickers!  It really doesn’t get any better that that.  No wait — actually, it does, when MRS. ANDREA GROSSMAN HERSELF says that the mandalas are “the best and most creative use of stickers I have seen in a long time.”  The six-year-old inside me crapped her pants when I read that.  To celebrate, I put all of the mandalas up in my Etsy shop, with the requisite line of credit:

Original sticker designs by Mrs. Grossman’s Paper Company.

Bottom line: always do your homework when it comes to licensing — whether you’re the licensor or the licensee.  Some companies that seem cool and indie might have some shady fine print, and some bigger, more established companies might be surprisingly supportive.  And of course, never ever sell work that uses someone else’s designs without permission — even if you bought it.  Owning an example of a design does not equal owning the rights to that design.

Making Making Things Better Better

I’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately.  In general it’s a good idea, tapping the collective brainpower of your fans or customer base to generate ideas you might normally have to rely on hired professionals for.  It’s been around for a long time, (think Betty Crocker recipe contests, American Idol or the 2002 vote for the new M&Ms color), but the Internet has made crowdsourcing infinitely easier and the scale infinitely larger.  The X Prize Foundation did this in 2004 when they offered a $10 million prize for the first reusable privately-built spacecraft.  $10 million may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to develop in both time and money.  Why?  Because they only had to pay for success.  They got the trial and error of the other contestants for free.

In a slightly different vein, Apple recently began offering free iPhone App development courses through Stanford University and iTunes.  The cost to Apple is minimal.  They just open up the developers’ software and course materials, all of which already exist.  In return they get a huge influx of iPhone Apps, all developed free.  They post the ones they like to their App Store, and sit back while they collect their share of the profits.  Of course, the developers are getting a great deal, too.  They’re getting everything they need, from the education to the the global distribution platform, to bring a useful and potentially profitable product to market.

And that’s what can be so great about crowdsourcing.  It’s symbiotic, mutually beneficial, win-win.  It’s become so popular that there’s even a crowdsourcing project designed to make crowdsourcing better (everything good goes meta).  It’s called “The Better Project,” and while it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of feedback yet, if I know the Intertubes, it’s only a matter of time.

So how can you use crowdsourcing in your small business?  It can be as simple as sending a survey, holding a contest, or opening up a blog post to comments.  You can also produce idea collections, as books, zines, bundles of fabric or free downloadable art.  You can even build your entire business around crowdsourcing, like Threadless or Prickie.  Either way, as long as your customers are getting something out of it, whether it’s a prize, a commission or just better products, they’ll be happy to share their knowledge.

Seeing Green

I’ve been sick for over a week now.  It’s really pissing me off.  I have shit to DO, man!  But I’m finally well enough to at least type while I lie on the couch.  My apologies if this week’s posts are a little short.

With Earth Day coming up in a month a number of websites/companies are sponsoring “green design” contests:

  1. Threadless is having a green t-shirt design contest, with a $2,000 cash prize and loads of other stuff.  The deadline is April 6th.
  2. Inhabitat is having a contest for objects made out of re-used materials.  Their prize is $200 and the deadline is March 27th.
  3. Adventure Ecology is also having a “trash into treasure” contest called the “Smart Art Competition.” Submission deadline is May 1st and top prize is $2,000 cash and a “prominent” San Francisco exhibition.

I plan to enter all of these, and many more craft/design competitions.  It’s a great way to create portfolio assignments for yourself with real guidelines, real deadlines and the possibility of real rewards!