While Epic Games continues to position itself as a pro-game developer company, the same can’t be said for how it treats artists and their copyrights. The Fortnite developer recently offered $3,000 to an artist for an illustration and the copyright—which meant that the artist wouldn’t be able to sell the prints or repost the art elsewhere. The artist refused. Now creators are rallying against what they see as predatory contracts.
Deb JJ Lee tweeted that they had received a $3,000 offer to create an illustration for Fortnite, which they turned down, citing a commitment to “the wellbeing of freelance artists.” Lee told Kotaku over email that the offer was originally made on November 3.
“With the budget given, it doesn’t feel ethical to take this project,” they tweeted. “The time it would take for a WFH assignment from such a high earning game where I can’t even sell prints would barely leave me with a living wage.”
Lee estimated that the type of illustration required would take “weeks” of work, and pointed out that Fortnite makes billions of dollars.
Lee hoped that the legal team would reconsider the terms of the contract. According to the artist, the agents claimed that all the contracts “had set conditions for fee and terms,” and that the company “did not have the time and manpower to negotiate each one separately.” It sure had the lawyers to sue Apple over App Store fees and to go after cheat sellers, though! Whether Epic is understaffed or not, it still looks bad that its standard contract seems so stingy. Kotaku reached out to Epic to ask if the amount is standard for its freelance contracts, and whether or not it’s decided to change the rates since the tweet went viral. Kotaku did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Lee stressed that licensed usage is different from a buyout. In the former, the artist retains the creator’s rights to their work. In the latter, the artist sells their exclusivity rights—which means the cost could be higher. Lee told Kotaku that they’ve previously sold their copyright to a major client for tens of thousands of dollars.
Lee tweeted on the 3rd that they would have accepted Epic’s deal if it had been a licensing agreement rather than a copyright buyout. As stated above, a copyright is worth more money than a license.
According to the Graphic Artist Guild Handbook, a complex illustration costs between $375 to $12,000. The rate for a total copyright transfer constitutes an additional 100 percent to 300 percent fee. Assuming that a license for a Fortnite illustration was worth $3,000 like Lee wanted, a buyout would be worth from $6,000 to $12,000. And the book stresses that each artist should be negotiating independently.
“Copyright is probably one of, if not, the most valuable thing an artist can sell,” Lee wrote in an email to Kotaku. “If I give up copyright to my illustration for Fortnite, this means that Epic will be legally able to make infinite money off my illustration, repurposed however they want, and whenever they want, whether it becomes printed merch, an Instagram ad, or a 50 [foot] billboard.”
Several professional artists in the comments and quote retweets applauded Lee for standing their ground. Other artists brought up instances in their own careers during which clients proposed rates that the artists later found to be unacceptable. Lee was still met with pushback from commenters who thought that they were asking for too much from the game studio. Understandably, Lee was a little confused as to why people are trying to bootlick Epic Games.
“Asking for more…will not damage a multi-billion dollar company.” Lee told Kotaku that they could empathize with desperate artists who needed the money. But now that they can afford to turn the offer down, Lee said they were willing to do so to push back against unlivable rates. One of their tabletop RPG clients offered them “a much better deal” with Kickstarter funds. “The rich are continuing to be among the cheapest.”
Update 12/7/2022 at 1:13 P.M. E.T.: The article has been updated with additional context.