SciArt illustration contracts for your science communication project (Using Images-A Best Practices Primer, Part 5)

This article is the fifth in a series aimed at helping you enhance your #scicommand #sciart by avoiding #visualplagiarism. It will do so by laying out some best practices for dealing with images (which are, by their nature) visual intellectual property protected by copyrights.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, and no part of this article or series should be construed as legal advice. 

Please chime in, in the comments or by contacting me, if you have suggestions for how to enhance this article or the series.

Placing lid on vial_sig
Hiring an illustrator doesn’t have to feel like wizardry. A well-written contract can simplify and enhance the experience. (Student assessing stream water quality, ©2017)


In addition to the 4Cs of commissioning SciArt, there are four major considerations you will need to take into account when you work with an illustrator.

They are: contracts, what you want, your time frame, and what you can spend. This article breaks down the first of those, contracts.

Contracts are critical. Fair contracts are essential. Generous contracts are ideal.

This holds true whether you call the document a contract, an MOU, a purchase order, or an agreement. A contract ensures that everyone involved with the project knows what the goals and terms are, what each party’s responsibilities are, who pays who how much and when, how and when the contract can end, etc.

Writing a fair contract is essential if you want to have a fully productive and mutually beneficial relationship with an illustrator. And, writing a fair contract is essential, since you do want great drawings that are made by someone who is earning a fair income from contributing their professional expertise to your project.

So, how do we write a fair-to-generous contract?

1. Insist on something in writing, even if it is just an email that encompasses all the project considerations and to which all parties state in writing that they agree.

At a minimum, this contract should address the following:

  • Who is responsible for what
  • Deadlines
  • How communication will take place
  • Who makes decisions and can request (or require) revisions
  • What compensation is
  • How expanded scope or excessive (more than 1-2 rounds of) revisions will be negotiated
  • Licensing terms
  • Terms for terminating the agreement/project (including “kill fees” which are the amount of money you’ll pay the illustrator if the project is cancelled at various stages along the way.)

2. Research your institution’s procurement policies.

A potentially challenging element of contracts is the nature of your institution’s purchasing policies. Clients who already know their institutions procurement policies and procedures are far far easier to work with.

Your institution’s procurement policies may include purchasing thresholds that trigger requirements such as a) someone other than you agrees to the terms of your agreement, b) legal review of an agreement, c) illustrator to carry contractor’s insurance, etc. Thresholds like these might be triggered at $1,500, $2,500, and $10,000, for example.

How do you deal with such thresholds?

  • Aim for the lowest level of institutional oversight possible while ensuring the illustrator is still receiving fair compensation.
  • If necessary and possible, break projects into smaller amounts, so you can retain more control over the terms of your agreement.

These suggestions stem from a point of raw practicality. Purchasing contract thresholds can force illustrators (and other self-employed professionals) to walk away from a project, no matter how compelling it is. This is because it is not financially feasible or ethically fair for an illustrator to be expected to carry millions of dollars of liability insurance along with signing a contract that assumes all liability and gives away copyrights. And, some institutional contracts require these kinds of terms for projects that cross certain thresholds.

In essence, try to organize your project so that procurement policies and associated contract terms are not onerous or impossible for the illustrator to meet.

3. Deal with your institution yourself.

On a related note, it is crucial that you plan on dealing with your own institution when it comes to procurement and any associated paperwork.

It is not the illustrator’s responsibility, nor is it really appropriate, for the illustrator to deal directly with your institution about your project. Do be sure, though, to aim for mutually beneficial terms, and do think of this whole process as a negotiation. Both you and the illustrator need to be satisfied with the terms before starting work on the project.

Next week, we’ll wrap up with discussion of how to plan ahead for efficient collaboration with the illustrator: Know what you want, and how much you can spend.

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