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Creator ownership is an arrangement in which the creator or creators of a work of fiction retain full ownership of the material, regardless of whether it is self-published or by a corporate publisher. In some fields of publishing - such as novels - creator ownership is a standard arrangement. In other fields - such as comic books, recorded music, or motion pictures - it has traditionally been uncommon, with either work for hire or publisher purchase of the material being the norm.
Most successful American comics have been traditionally either sold to their publishers before publication, or produced as work for hire. However, creator ownership has become increasingly common in comics publishing since the late 1970s and 1980s. During this period, several new publishers went into business, offering comics writers and artists the opportunity to have their work published while retaining the copyrights to the characters and the stories. Dark Horse Comics, Eclipse Comics, and Fantagraphics were influential examples. Creator-owned properties also have allowed series to continue with multiple publishers as circumstances require; Usagi Yojimbo for instance has been published by four succeeding publishing houses. Other creators took advantage of the then-new direct market distribution system for comics, to self-publish their work. Dave Sim's Cerebus and Wendy and Richard Pini's ElfQuest were prominent examples of this approach. Established publishers such as DC Comics and Marvel Comics began to offer creator-ownership contracts in limited circumstances.
In the 1990s, creator ownership became a cause célèbre among many comics creators, including those working in the dominant genre of superheroes. Image Comics was founded by several superhero artists, with a provision in its charter that the company would not own any of the material it published; that would be retained by the creators or the studio for which they worked. In addition to creator-owned series set in their own continuity, DC published several creator-owned series set in the DC Universe (e.g. Sovereign Seven, Xero), traditionally the exclusive province of work-for-hire contracts.
Although some comics readers also support the cause of creator ownership, and some creator-owned series have been very successful, this arrangement has not always been advantageous to creators. Writer Peter David has frequently pointed out that his creator-owned works have sold a small fraction of the series he writes as work for hire, featuring popular publisher-owned characters.