10 September 2010

[design] The Peril Of The Unsolicited Submission

And now a little cautionary tale designed to explain why unsolicited submissions are something you shouldn't attempt without a lot of thought. The standard I am not a lawyer disclaimer applies.

If you want to, fine. But understand that assuming a contract where none exists may burn you in the end.

A few days ago, this story (http://mddailyrecord.com/2010/09/02/appeals-court-revives-suit-over-ravens%E2%80%99-first-logo/) caught my eye and it occurred to me that this could be a major teachable moment. In it, if I'm reading this correctly, in 1995, a security guard designs a new logo for his favorite team, the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, and faxes it in, unsolicited.

His requirements are reportedly quite modest. The payment requested: a team helmet, and a signed letter.

The Ravens used his logo from 1996-1998 and, apparently, did not compensate him adequately - because he took them to court over using it. A variety of rulings have largely confirmed the creators copyright, but for one clear instance in which it was found that the use details team history and is therefore fair-use. It doesn't look like he's gotten much, if anything, in actual damages, and has presumably spent a great deal of time in court and engaging legal counsel.

It was obviously worth it to this creator. Doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me.

Big companies, in the main, are leery of the unsolicited submission. It's not because they're evil, necessarily, but it's too easy for someone to see the gist of their unsolicited submission in the work product from that point forward to take the risk. That path leads to court, and nobody really wants to go there.

Independent designers should be wary of sending in what's not asked for. Companies are not necessarily evil, as above, but sometimes the urge to use a cool thing seen in the mails just might be too tempting.

A good, reasonably ethical company will have strong guidelines about unsolicited submissions. A good example that goes the extra mile is the policy for Apple, which can be found at http://www.apple.com/legal/policies/ideas.html. Essentially what is says is that Apple doesn't accept unsolicited submissions:
Apple or any of its employees do not accept or consider unsolicited ideas, including ideas for new advertising campaigns, new promotions, new or improved products or technologies, product enhancements, processes, materials, marketing plans or new product names. Please do not submit any unsolicited ideas, original creative artwork, suggestions or other works (“submissions”) in any form to Apple or any of its employees. The sole purpose of this policy is to avoid potential misunderstandings or disputes when Apple’s products or marketing strategies might seem similar to ideas submitted to Apple.
Cut and dried. But Apple, knowledgable as to how admired a company it is generally, also realized that some people won't take a preemptive no for an answer, even after you tell them why. Further along, the policy provides that if you continue, despite being told a firm no, to submit your ideas to Apple, you have essentially given it to them to do with as they wish.

Any intellectual property agreement between parties such as this has to be a meeting of the minds in order to really work for all. A company such as Apple (or the Ravens) are not obliged to give you their time and consideration regardless of how much you love them. Plying such companies with unsolicited ideas amounts to trying to force them, unilaterally, into a contractual arrangement they had no chance to review before even being broached, and regardless of anyone's view of the corporate world, this just doesn't seem fair on any level.

And if you want to think of it in terms of the individual's rights - this attitude protects both sides. The company protects itself, and the integrity and ownership of your own ideas is protected at the same time ... unless you want to go to the wall with Apple (for example) about it.

I know, it's tempting to salute your favorite company/sports team/whatever with expressions of love such as unsolicited designs. If you have one cued up on the table, ready to send out, my advice is ... don't. You can buy an Apple product, or attend a Ravens game if you want to show appreciation.

Besides, if you have that much creative animation, you can probably come up with amazing designs of your own, and do the freelance thing to some sort of good result.

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Kevin Allman said...

It's not just companies. Most successful writers or producers won't read unsolicited works -- not to be mean or discouraging, but to stave off any chance that they'll be sued in the future if they ever create a character or situation remotely related to one in the unsolicited manuscript.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

It's just good common sense to me. You protect them, you protect you. It's a win-win.