When licensing becomes ridiculous

We are always amused whenever the latest announcement is made by some manufacturer that some celebrity is now licensed for…potatoes, mattresses, handbags, furniture…go ahead and pick one, it really doesn’t matter. The truth is that a fair number of these “celebrity licensors” have nothing to do with the product, and I would not be surprised if many of them could not even pick out their own licensed items in a store. Having never seen them, don’t cha know. Even knowing how it all works, I was somewhat surprised when I received my first Paula Deen newsletter today – that they claim I signed up for. Hmmm…

I DID email the Paula Deen organization a few weeks back, but it was definitely not to sign up for their newsletter. Which is quite well done, by the way. I contacted them after the Homefires rug fiasco (where many of Paula’s “licensed” rugs were obvious copies of the Homefires rugs) and I suggested that Ms. Deen should consider a public apology and perhaps try to make amends for the apparent design theft – which I suspect she knew nothing about – and in response they have signed me up for her newsletter. Not quite what I expected, but then it sometimes IS all about the money – no matter what the commercials tell us.

And I was actually hoping for a pan of her brownies.

License! Global

I did a question and answer interview with License! Global magazine recently but (as usual…) most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe I talk too much? What they published in the Licensing Expo Show Daily you can read here but the entire interview is below.

You’ve recently signed two new artists, Gayle Kabaker and Marianne Richmond. Can you tell me a little about their work and what sets it apart and where you think their licensing opportunities will be?

We’ve actually signed three new artists; David Wohlrab has also joined Two Town Studios. They have three very different styles – Gayle comes from a background in fashion and commercial illustration and has a very beautiful, soft contemporary look. David Wohlrab is more of a classic illustrator, highly skilled and has worked for years in 2D and 3D product design. Marianne Richmond began with a card line and built that into a successful career as a million-selling author, speaker and connection expert. All three have the knowledge and experience to create opportunities in a wide variety of categories, so right now we are not restricting our efforts for them to anything specific.

Can you tell me about the My Friend Ronnie™ property and some new licensing agreements with that property?

Ronnie Walter, the author and artist, developed the My Friend Ronnie ™ collection to help fill the need for a women’s humor property that is clever, funny and irreverent but not snide or mean spirited. Our first My Friend Ronnie license was a gift bag at Target about 5 years ago, and since then we have been adding partners whenever appropriate. In January we debuted a full line of giftware with Westland Giftware, a 100 sku signature card and gift stationery collection from Leanin’ Tree, and a line of decorative plaques with Enesco/Dept 56. We very recently signed an international partner who will be producing My Friend Ronnie products in the Netherlands.

Are there any particular artists or collections you’ll be highlighting at the SURTEX and Licensing Expo this year? What makes them stand out in the market?

We will not be exhibiting at Surtex this year for the first time in more than a decade but have expanded our presence at the Licensing Expo. We have a number of new and established properties that we will show there:

Real Women…Real Country ™ is a new humorous collection from Ronnie Walter aimed at the millions of women raising “crops, critters and kids” – whether in or out of the city – who have little time for spas, sports cars or tiny dogs that fit in their purse. It is clever and hip but with country pride – just like the 50 million women who live outside the major metros in the US. It has already been picked up for a 32 sku greeting card line.

Krista Hamrick’s “Name Above all Names” collection is unique in the marketplace – it is an illustrated alphabet of names for God, each with Scripture reference – and a beautiful work of art. It has been licensed for fabric, woven goods, canvas wall art and some personalized product, and has excellent potential for expansion into many more categories.

Artist and toy designer Betsy Veness has several new collections for toddler to tweens including Wee Tooters, Polk and Dottie and Don’t Cross Me which is a sassy tween girl property that will make you laugh out loud.

Have you signed any new licensing contracts recently or broken into any new product categories for the first time? Are there any particular categories you are interested in pursuing to a greater extent this year?

We maintain hundreds of active agreements and sign new ones almost every week, however we did get a couple of new categories recently. We are now on disposable trash bins and “edible greeting cards”, which are actually very tasty decorated cookies that are sent to people like cards. We would like to do much more work in the apparel categories and have recently partnered with a firm that has good connections in that business to market our properties to those manufacturers. Expanding our tabletop and home goods licenses is a goal – we have some penetration into those categories but would like to see more. We are also nibbling around the edges of the publishing and entertainment business to see if there is any way to transition some of our properties in those directions.

What are some retail chains your licensed products are being sold in? Any new retail outlets this year?

We have licensed product of some sort in every level of retail, and due to the number of licensees there is no sure way to track where all of it may be until we see the reports, and even then we won’t know who all of the end users are. In chains, I know as of today there is product in Target, Wal-Mart, Michaels, Lowes, Joanns, AC Moore, Archivers and Ace, we have a line widely distributed into drug and grocery so we are in many of those, and there are certainly more. We do have giftware going into Macy’s this fall and I believe that will be new location for us.

What product categories do you expect will be strong in 2010/2011? How do you think the business is shaping up?

Two big but very different questions. For us, I expect the social expression industry will stay strong along with message-based products, particularly those with connection messages. Techno-products, like ringtones and skins. And there are certainly a lot of babies out there, which may bode well for those categories that have tie-in to babies and moms. I always hesitate to predict what will be working next year – at least in writing – because it really is anyone’s guess.

Business is good, and I see that continuing. I do think, however, that we have to acknowledge the impact that technology is having on the art licensing business – it is changing virtually every aspect of our operation from how we represent the artists to how we show the designs, and to some degree it even affects what designs now work in the marketplace. Throw in the pressures of a troubled economy and the evolution of the retailer purchasing models and it becomes a very different business than it was just a couple of years ago.
Technology has also enabled the recent influx of hundreds of new artists who have heard about and want to “try” art licensing, but unfortunately this increase in artists is not matched by an increase in licensing opportunities, in fact it is quite the opposite. The result is that they are picking off the “low hanging fruit” – a card here, a gift bag there, maybe a run of fabric – and the cumulative effect is being felt by everyone in the business as the opportunities to license art become diluted by their sheer numbers.
Rather than sit back and watch, we are looking at how to adjust our strategy to take advantage of these changes, whether that’s guiding our artists toward more targeted collections, partnering with local experts in new categories and geographical areas, or by utilizing the amazing marketing reach that we can now access with the push of a keyboard button.
And then of course we need to be ready for all that to change again tomorrow…

Get In the Biz

There has been a long standing discussion about whether “licensing” is an industry or is it simply a business model for an intellectual property, or IP, owner to make their product or process available to the marketplace and hopefully generate revenue. This is the “license-out” model that we are all familiar with, where someone other than the IP creator has the ability (and desire) to commercialize the property and shares a percentage of sales with the IP owner. Now we could go on for days discussing the minutiae of this, from what rights can or should be granted, manufacturing, marketing and level of retail details, timing, terms, infringement and indemnifications, and on and on….

However, I suspect about now a lot of you are reading “blah, blah, blah” and wondering why you should care. The point I am coming around to here is that if, as I believe, licensing is a business model, then it makes sense that you as an artist – by necessity – will need to consider yourself a “business”. And how do you do that? Treat it like any other business that you may start. Read magazines such as Inc. and Fast Company, subscribe to trade journals, the EPM Licensing Letter, gift mags, Greetings Etc., maybe some trend reports. Sign up for all the E-newsletters you can find that have relevance to your desired career path. You should spend hours researching markets and manufacturers. Never pass a product in a store without picking it up to see who made it, how they made it and who is decorating it (store clerks often cautiously ask if we ‘need help’ as we do that…). Become an information sponge.

Sound like work? It most definitely is – but you are trying to add a new level of awareness that will help you recognize opportunities and at the same time make you a more valuable resource for your clients. You want your message to change from “here is a pretty snowman” to “here is what I can do to help you sell more stuff”. And if you can make the transition, eventually that is exactly what happens – you sell more stuff.

Licensing Expo

We’re cruising along over the Rockies at 39,000 feet and another Licensing Show (our ninth) is behind us. And so is the 110 degree weather – dry heat or not that is just plain hot.

It was, once again, a good show for us. There was a definite positive energy at this show, a welcome change from the last couple of years. Day 1 started with a bang right at opening and stayed busy all day, a bit unusual for this show where typically the first mornings have been a bit slower in the Art & Design section while everyone visits the newest “fireworks and Ferris wheels” on the main floor. Day 2 cooked right along as well, and true to form Day 3 dropped off quickly and by afternoon things were winding down. We had booked appointments at various times all three days and so we did not see very much down time, but the consensus I heard was that it was worthwhile for the other exhibitors as well, and also that the attendees were focused and knew what they wanted.

Some quick observations from the show:

1. The Licensing Expo seems to be less and less effective for single design art sourcing every year as the movement continues toward broader collections with a point of view and hopefully a compelling story.

2. There is not a lot of the above.
(For what it’s worth, we did hear a couple of times that the quality of the art displayed in the section was noticeably better this year – and it has always been pretty good at this show.)

3. Retailers, and therefore also manufacturers, are still being cautious about anything new or unknown so we continue to see the old established properties in play or being resurrected and brought to market. Our joke is that they want “new but proven”…good luck with that…

4. International licensing is continuing to expand for art-based properties. We had meaningful meetings with both partner agencies and manufacturers from the UK, Brazil, Denmark, Israel and Mexico.

5. Apparently the I-Pad is emerging as the greatest invention of all time, and you will be seeing fewer and fewer paper and binder type portfolios from this point onward.

All for now, seat backs and tray tables up for landing….

Register those copyrights!

I just read a great story on GreetingsMagazine.com about a company named Lucky Break that has won a design infringement suit against Sears and their ad agency. (It is a huge URL so you will need to search for it on the site). The story does not give all the legal details but it is important to note that one of the findings, in addition to the design copying, was that Sears et al violated the Lucky Break copyright warning statement.
Have one of those on your materials? You should.

It also brings to mind one of our more unfortunate experiences with a disputed design and copyright registration. A few years back we licensed a large collection of 3D products that had a variety of designs and dozens of skus that ran (with refreshes) for several years. We were a bit surprised when we got a call last summer from a family member who had seen our garden gnome and angels at… an HBBCS (Humungo Big Box Craft Store that does not start with “M”).

Cool, we thought – until we discovered that our manufacturer never sold them to HBBCS, but apparently their factory had. Welcome to the world of overseas sourcing.

We have been down this road before, too many times, so I sent all the appropriate catalog pages, product pictures and supporting material showing our designs pre-dating theirs off to the appropriate person at HBBCS, who immediately turned it over to their head legal counsel, who immediately contacted me with only one question – did we have the copyright registration certificate? Which unfortunately we did not, we had let some of these designs go unregistered. I still believe I could hear him chuckle, and of course they immediately concluded there was no similarity and ended our correspondence. All we could do was let it go because the costs of pursuing it would far outweigh any recovery of royalties, and the HBBCS legal staff were of course fully aware that, without our Federal registration, they were not on the hook for damages and could ignore us.

So what do you think? Our products are the top two images, the (much uglier) HBBCS products are below.

Close enough for ya?