Home News Business News Rall’s open letter on the Brian Duffy matter

Rall’s open letter on the Brian Duffy matter


Editorial cartoonist Brian Duffy was recently let go from his job at the Des Moines Register; after leaving, he discovered that his artwork, which had been left behind, was not going to be returned to him but was planned to be donated to the University of Iowa.

Duffy said he was always under the impression that his sketches were a joint copyright, just like when he published his book.

“Copyright Brian Duffy and the Des Moines Register, not just the Des Moines Register,” said Duffy. “I have no problem donating a large body of work to the University of Iowa. In fact, I’d love to do that.”

But he wants to do it on his terms not on behalf of the newspaper that shooed him out the door.

Now Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, has written an open letter to Carolyn Washburn, the editor of the paper:

Dear Ms. Washburn:

As President of The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), I am writing to express the collective dismay of our membership at reports that you plan to dispose of Brian Duffy’s original political cartoons without his consent.

While your newspaper may claim ownership of Brian’s thousands of original cartoons he drew during 25 years as The Register’s staff editorial cartoonist, there remain compelling questions of what is customary and what is right.

Although it used to be common for newspapers to keep their cartoonists’ original artwork, that practice changed decades ago, and almost universally cartoonists now leave their newspapers with their artwork. These original drawings represent an artist’s life work, and while newspapers pay for the its production, they do so in order to publish the work on its editorial page—not to possess each piece as artwork.

Mr. Duffy is understandably attached to his quarter-century’s worth of drawings, and may wish to archive some of them for his children. Others he may want to donate to charities or sell at galleries. Regardless, they offer him a potential source of revenue after retirement, and reasonable people would assume that he should have them.

Although your reported plan to donate Brian’s cartoons to the University of Iowa is commendable, cynics may charge that your purpose is to cash in on Brian’s firing by taking a tax write-off for a sizable donation.

By your own admission, Brian produced “very excellent work” for your organization. On behalf of his professional organization, I encourage you to reconsider your plans and return his artwork to him.

Very truly yours,
Ted Rall
Association of American Editorial Cartoonists

  1. I’m not sure what the common practise is, but if the Register purchased Duffy’s paper, pencils, erasers, ink, brushes, drawing table, chair, telephone and computer; AND paid Duffy a salary, it could be debated that he produced those cartoons specifically for them.
    If he had a contract with the Register for his services, or was self employed and worked from an off-site studio or from his home, he would have a stronger case.

  2. Al: that doesn’t matter who bought what with what. A cartoonist will always remain the owner of the artwork, unless specifically stipulated in his contract. A publisher licenses the produced work for reproduction, not ownership.

  3. If Duffy was on staff and on salary, then yeah, the cartoons belong to the paper. Any of you who are on staff at your job, its the same thing. The work you do for your employers belongs to them.

    In this case, like Rall says, a case can be made for what is right over what is customary (or legal). The paper has nothing to lose, really, by returning the artwork and I hope they do. They could and would still retain publication rights, just not ownership of the physical objects.


  4. Since when has what is right stood in the way of what is legal? If anything, this is a lesson to read and understand your contracts before signing them.

  5. “Since when has what is right stood in the way of what is legal? If anything, this is a lesson to read and understand your contracts before signing them. ”

    Well, time is passing these sorts of contracts by. 25 years ago, a full-buyout sort of contract was the norm and probably no one thought otherwise about it. But times and attitudes and norms are changing and after so many years of dedicated work by Duffy the newspaper should get with the times and retroactively make this right.

    Aren’t there still some cases of Silver Age comics artists still not in possession of the drawings they did back in the day? I hope not, but I seem to recall hearing about this from time to time.

  6. If they’re refusing to give him his works, they probably have a contract that will stand up to a law suit. Rall’s point that they should do the right thing instead of what the law allows is pretty much the only argument with any weight here.

    He also makes the point that they get a write-off for any works they donate. So the people saying they have nothing to lose are in error. If they can convince the IRS that each original is worth $100 for purposes of the tax write off for the donation, then every 10 cartoons they let Duffy keep is a $1000 write off they can’t take.

    Then you get into arguments of what is a fair amount of art to let him keep? Should he get a number of them selected at random? Should the university get to go through the collection and select the cartoons they feel most historically significant (like a post-9/11 cartoon), or should Duffy get to pick and choose? How would the process of him getting to choose work? SOP is that you do not invite laid-off employees back on premises for security reasons.

    And, if they give any of them back, no matter what the process, they have to pay someone’s salary while that person handles the selection and transfer of the works that Duffy would get to keep (as opposed to just boxing everything up and letting the university send a truck for it).

    The last option is this… Unless the newspaper puts specific restrictions on what the university can do with the physical donation, the university could volunteer to give some of them back. The newspaper gets its write off and no headaches, and the university assumes the responsibility of working out how much Duffy gets to keep. That’s probably the win-win-win solution.

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