Who Owns Creative Content: Creator or Investor? Part 1

In conducting research for my Dr. Horrible blog post, I came across myriad articles and blog postings about the 2007 Writers Guild of America (WGA) writers’ strike, examining the event from all perspectives. Although there were plenty of opinions about the reasons behind the strike and how information like profit margins and contracts were being interpreted, the core issue seemed to boil down to one philosophical question:

From Picasso's "Moo" Period

Sad painter cow wants his moolah.

Who Owns Creative Content?

Are creators – from us humble corporate bloggers to multimillion dollar screenwriters, from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists to bestselling authors, from poets to painters to sculptors to musicians – the true owners of our products? We take an abstract idea and translate it a visual or auditory experience that can be shared among members in a society. Without creators inventing and arranging the words and images and sounds, the art would not exist.

Or are investors the true owners? Their connections within a given industry and financial support are the bridges between imagined concepts and reality. A thought, an idea, an imagined product can be described but not experienced socially when it does not have a concrete manifestation. Without an investor’s resources providing the money, materials, and opportunities, the art would not exist.

The touchy-feely answer is, of course, the creators. Cash is cash no matter where it comes from; creators are unique and provide a rare commodity: the concept of their creation. The power dynamic shifts in the creators’ direction. But someone still needs to transform it into a medium where it can be shared with the world, and creators rarely have the financial means to independently make that transformation on their own.

The WGA Strike and New Media

The general consensus was that the WGA strike was fought over the writers’ cuts in the distribution of old media (as well as setting precedents for new media). The problem was that writers had signed contracts, created content, and received compensation for their work at a certain time in technological development. Later, the studio wanted to distribute the same product in a new medium: the internet. Because the distribution was done online, the costs were very low, and the return (minus any marketing – also low cost if done online) was pure profit.

Were the writers entitled to a cut of this? Were the original investors paying for the distribution of the film under the terms of the contract and technology at the time it was written, or were they paying for the right to make as much money off the film as possible in any way they were able to?

Where do you think the ownership of creative material belongs? Does it all boil down to contracts? What if the contract is unclear or drawn up at a time where there is unforeseeable additional profit to be made from technological advancements or other market expansions? Don’t you think my boss should give me a raise for all of this amazing creative content? Sound off in the comments below.

Come back for the second part of this post later this afternoon, where I’ll talk about playwrights and screenwriters (as well as a creator’s role as a commodity), and what all of this has to do with you as a promotional products customer.

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!


Jana Quinn

An old ‘G’ that’s been working for QLP since it was in Bret’s basement – Jana has been writing since she made up a story about a Jana-Tiger that liked rocky road ice cream and got straight A’s. She enjoys writing about marketing and pop culture, posting a ‘Die Hard’ article as often as she’s allowed. She is inspired by the articles at Cracked and frequently wears a Snuggie in the office. You can also connect with Jana on Google+.


  1. Tony Promo

    The owner of any intellectual property *should be* whoever owns the publishing rights, at least in most cases. Especially in music, more times than not (i.e. major labels), the companies own the publishing, so if your song gets put in the new iPod commercial, and you don’t own the publishing rights to that song, you get nothing. You can fault the labels for taking advantage of the artists, but they’re the ones who agreed to the contract. In my opinion, if you’re the creator of any intellectual property, and don’t protect yourself by owning the publishing, distribution rights, etc, and you wind up getting screwed, it’s kind of your own fault!

    Thus the surge of independent labels in the 90’s. Artists were tired of getting screwed, and cut out the middle man. You can actually sell less music and make more money that way. As much as I’m not a fan, Moby has made millions selling his music for dozens upon dozens of commercials, and a lot of artists have followed suit. But it all starts with owning what you create, and I think if you’re in it for the love as a creative person, you might as well protect yourself financially. The artists/creatives behind the scenes deserve the bulk of profits from what they do, you just have to take the steps to make sure that happens. You just need a savvy intellectual property/entertainment/copyright attorney!

    • Jana Quinn

      I think the power balance is what makes negotiating publishing rights, distribution rights, and other details of creative content a struggle. An artist new in the industry has zero money and only his own art. A skillful executive will likely play down the potential revenue in an effort to pay as little as possible while maintaining as much control over the property as possible should it become popular. While not strictly illegal in most cases (having learned about law from MY COUSIN VINNY), it’s still fairly shady ethics. I like your idea of bringing in an attorney experienced in these matters; but again, that may be cashola a new artist simply doesn’t have.

  2. Juliette

    Excellent post and I can’t wait for the second part!

    I hate to say it but I think it boils down to the contract. And these days there had better be something in the contract that allows ownership to revert to the creator after a certain period of time or allowing for renegotiation when technology advances.

    For those of us who create content while on the job, technically we’re under contract too. And that contract says that what we create doesn’t belong to us but to the company instead. It’s one of those things that you often have to agree to when writing for blog sites. What you write for them can’t be reproduced elsewhere (like on another blog you write for). They require that you give them ownership of it.

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Juliette! I know that legally things come down to contracts, but in the case of new technology (digital distribution, for example), the waters get murky.

      Good point about blog posts; the writing we do becomes property of the companies we work for. However, the writing we do is almost always solely for the benefit of the company we work for (although we may have personal interest in the topic). Something more artistic/expressive makes things a little more emotionally charged in terms of ownership.

  3. Amanda

    Nice post Jana. This is a hard one to make a firm decision on for me. I’m not really sure who I think deserves the money when things are re-released and such. I understand that the contracts are already written, but it’s so hard to say that the writers shouldn’t get another check from more earnings later on. I wonder if some contracts are written in such a way that they can be renegotiated or reviewed at a later date….? It would be tricky, but it would seem somewhat necessary. But then again, perhaps not. When I think of the Titanic in 3D coming back to theaters next year, would James Cameron, or Kate & Leo demand to be paid more? I’m not sure…….

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