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Licensing as a surface pattern designer

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

When I started out learning surface pattern design, I primarily sold my designs via the fabric printing company Spoonflower. After a few years and I'd built up a portfolio, I began to get requests to license my designs outside of Spoonflower.

Licensing is where a company pays you for the use of your design. You still own the design and hold copyright over it, but you allow the company to use it for a stated purpose, for a fee.

There are many reasons a company might want to license your design. Perhaps they have a product they want to get it printed on. I have had my designs appear on shirts, leggings, nappies and even a pee cloth!

Another common source of licensing requests is from Facebook fabric groups. These are smallish groups that usually only sell one type of fabric (typically jersey) to mostly repeat customers. The customers tend to be small business owners themselves, often making and selling baby and children's clothing. The owners of these groups search for new and interesting designs, then contact the relevant designers to enquire about licensing. They then use their own fabric printer contacts to provide the fabric to their customers. The fabric is generally much cheaper than can be found on Spoonflower which is why they are popular.

It is up to you as a designer to decide whether or not to license your designs. When I was first approached I was worried about the risk involved in sending your files to strangers. Because of course, once that file has been emailed out you have no control over it anymore. There is really nothing stopping someone from doing whatever they want with it.

But there is always a risk involved in putting your artwork online. Even if you only list on Spoonflower you are never going to be 100% protected against art theft. So I think it is a case of weighing up the risks vs rewards and making sure the rewards are worth it.

Personally, I have found licensing a good way to make additional income from my designs. Most of the clients who have approached me have gone on to be repeat customers. Many clients have gone on to commission me to create exclusive designs just for them.

This is the process I go through when I receive a licensing request:

  1. Perform some due diligence on the client to ensure the client is a genuine business who you can trust with your designs. This usually just involves me checking their social media, website etc.

  2. Find out what end products the client wants to make. Check this is something you want your design associated with for example!

  3. Ask how many end products will be made and use this to determine a price. I have a pricing structure based on the quantities that will be made. So I will typically charge a large company more than a small company for the same design because they will be making more profit. If you are not sure about where to start with pricing, have a look at what other surface pattern designers are charging on sites like Creative Market, or join a pattern designers group on Facebook and ask what other folks' rates are. But try not to undersell yourself. The client would not have a product without your design, so charge accordingly.

  4. Check what format the file needs to be - if additional work is required to get the design in the correct format you may want to consider charging extra for this. Usually clients are happy with standard JPEGs.

  5. Write up a contract with terms and conditions detailing what the client can and cannot do. I have listed an example at the end. Tailor this as required. Some terms you may need and to think about:

    1. Exclusive or non-exclusive - whether a design will only be sold to that client or not. Non exclusive means you can sell the design many times, exclusive means only once, so the price should reflect that.

    2. Perpetual license or temporary license - whether there is a time limit around when the client can use the design.

  6. Create an invoice. I use the Paypal invoice system, it gives clients a bit more trust in the process especially the first time and enables payments to be received from all over the world easily. You will pay fees though, so for some recurring UK clients of mine I ask for bank payments.

  7. Send the contract and invoice to the client. I include these in the same document. I don't ask for a signed contract back, but I state that by paying the invoice they are agreeing to these terms.

  8. Once payment has been received, send over the files. I do this by email usually, unless the files are too large, then I use Dropbox.

And that's it! I think it can be nerve-wracking sending your designs into the world for the first time. But I've found it helpful in expanding my surface pattern design career.

Any questions? Please send me a message and I'll try and help.

Example contract:

Terms and Conditions

Commercial License What you can do: Emery Smith grants you a 12mth, non-exclusive, non-transferable, worldwide license to use the stated image ("Media") for permitted purposes, defined as: For printing up to XXXm of fabric, per design. You are allowed to change the scale of the design prior to printing but not change the colours. What you may not do: Buyer may not resell, relicense, redistribute media without express written permission from Emery Smith. Use as a derivative work, and reselling or redistributing such derivative work is prohibited. Media may not be used in a pornographic, obscene, illegal, immoral, libelous or defamatory manner. Media may not be incorporated into trademarks, logos, or service marks. Media may not be made available for download or edited in any way. Emery Smith retains all rights, license, copyright, title and ownership of the Media. There is no warranty, express or implied, with the purchase of this digital image. Emery Smith will not be liable for any claims, or incidental, consequential or other damages arising out of this license or buyer's use of the Media.

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