The Avatars of Vishnu

Matsya the Fish

Back in January I was asked by the Brooklyn Museum to create a set of 11 iconic Vishnu avatars for an exhibit they’re planning in June. They didn’t offer a whole lot of money – an “honorarium,” they called it – but said the images could be under a Free license (they said CC-BY-SA was fine). I chose to do it because it was a cool gig, right up my alley; and I love the Brooklyn Museum and was excited to have my art be part of one of their exhibits. It turned out to be more work than I expected, but I was very pleased with the results.

Thus began a comedy of errors, the climax of which may have yet to be reached.

Kurma the Tortoise

First they wanted revisions. Creating is fun, but revisions are not. For what they were paying, revisions weren’t part of the deal. We hadn’t signed a contract; they hadn’t even mentioned a contract. It was just an oral agreement for a modest sum of money (“honorarium”) and because the work would be CopyLeft they could do whatever they wanted with it, including revise and modify.

Varaha the Boar

I hadn’t freelanced in years. Sita Sings the Blues took up nearly all my time between 2005 and 2011. I had gained a lot of self confidence during that time and was out of my old freelancer habits. Instead of doing whatever they asked and resenting them for it, I did something I’d never done before: I said no. I made sure to be polite. I consulted trusted friends, examined my motives, and was willing to accept any consequences, including being “fired.”

Narasimha the Lion-Man

The worst case scenario would be that they wouldn’t use the art and wouldn’t pay me. I was more concerned about the art than the money. I like money too, of course; the best-case scenario would be that they would use the art and pay me. But if they didn’t pay me, I planned to release the art myself, so anyone could use it, including them. They would be free to use the art even if they didn’t pay me.

The happy fact is that once I realized saying “no” was an option, any budding resentment at their requests evaporated. They were just trying to get what they want, which is what everyone does. It fell on me to set boundaries. It’s not wrong to try to get what you want; it’s also not wrong to say no.

Vamana thye Dwarf

After I said no, they produced a contract – one that I never would have signed, even if they’d ever shown it to me before, which they hadn’t. The contract granted them unlimited revisions.  Time passed, I politely stated and re-stated that the work was Free, and already completed; they could do whatever they wanted with it, and weren’t even legally bound to pay me.

Parashurama the Axe-Wielding Brahmin

Finally they removed the revisions clause – but added a new non-compete clause. This would make my work Free for everyone in the entire world to use, except me. I told them I couldn’t sign it, and they assured me it didn’t apply to the drawings I’d done, but anything I might do that would be “similar.”  They said the non-compete language absolutely had to stay in. I again pointed out the work was done, they had all the image files, and they could do whatever they wanted with it, without a contract and without even paying me.

Rama the King

I understand why contracts can be useful: the producer wants assurance of payment, and the payer wants assurance of production. If either party fails to live up to their obligation, the other party can punitively refuse theirs. But I had already done the work. I didn’t need a contract to incentivize it. Of course I wanted to be paid, and I thought paying me would be the decent thing to do; but the work was done, and I placed no restrictions on it.

Krishna the Cowherd Prince

I don’t like contracts. They are overused and unnecessary in most cases. Often it takes more time to negotiate a contract than it does to execute the work itself. I agree it is uncool and wrong to promise money and not deliver, but I hope to never work with anyone who can’t be trusted to live up to such a simple promise. If they don’t, a contract is unlikely to make it better. I’d have to “go legal” on them to enforce it, and unless it’s a really huge amount of money they reneged on, I’d have to spend more money and time on the legal enforcement. Art and Law should stay as far away from each other as possible. I manage to get plenty of work done without contracts, and I manage to take in money as well.

Balarama the Brother of Krishna

Throughout all of this I refrained from releasing the images myself, so the Brooklyn Museum could have first use. First use bestows such a competitive advantage that copyright is irrelevant. If the Museum rolled out merchandise first, any potential competitors would be unlikely to catch up. The work would immediately be associated with the Museum, before any competitor could associate it with anything else. Any sane contract would have obligated me to grant them first use, but that wasn’t in their contract at all, even though the Free license was. Their contract was built on the assumption of copyright, just with a CC-BY-SA license inserted into it. (Law students take note: most lawyers have no clue about the implications of Free licenses. Please try to fix this.) The non-compete clause was pointless, but a first use provision would have been essential for them.

Buddha the Preacher

Anyway, time continued to pass, and they finally let me strike out the non-compete clause so I’d just sign the damn contract and make the project digestible to their bureaucracy. So I did, and they paid me! Slightly more than the initially specified “honorarium” too. This was back in March. I’ve been looking forward to the Vishnu exhibit ever since, eager to finally have my illustrations see the light of day in the glorious setting of the Brooklyn Museum.

The exhibit is set to open in June. It should be really cool! But it won’t include my illustrations, because today (May 5) they informed me their director wants to “take it in another direction.” Yep, they dropped my art, with just a few weeks to go.

I’m really glad that I specified a Free license from the very beginning. If I had granted them a restrictive copyright, then when they axed the art, no one would be able to use it. So here’s yet another benefit to Free Culture: a client can’t kill it.

Kalki the Avatar of the Future

Addendum: As Terry Hancock wrote in the comments below: “in the end, the museum subsidized an enrichment of the commons, for which I am grateful to them.” Me too!

All images CC-BY-SA. Click for 640-pixel-square PNGs with transparent backgrounds. High resolution PNGs here. SVG files here.



Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

106 thoughts on “The Avatars of Vishnu”

  1. These are absolutely gorgeous Nina. I can see all of them in a trapplique someday in a freaking amazing quilt :0) I can’t believe they dropped your art… they must have lost their minds! I’m glad to hear the resolution of your deciding to say “no” after much facebook debate. Again, sad they dropped it, but I’m glad you stuck to your guns so we can all enjoy the beauty of your artwork and creativity 🙂

  2. “First they wanted revisions. Creating is fun, but revisions are not. For what they were paying, revisions weren’t part of the deal.”

    In my experience, those customers who don’t pay much tend to ask a lot in the revisions chapter.

    They often approach the designer without having a very good idea of what they want: as you keep making new designs and doing revisions, they happen to have an *excellent* idea of what they *don’t* want, which is excruciating.

    I’ve reached the conclusion that they’re never, as a matter of fact, interested in an illustration or a logo: What they really want, I suspect, is the power trip some people gets from screwing other people’s lives.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting and informative piece, Nina….I shared this on Facebook immediately. Hope this legal madness didn’t dampen your Birthday week !

  4. Great story. It never ceases to amaze me how rude public servants of the more intellectual bent can be.

  5. HOW WISE YOU ARE. It is truly useless and disgusting for entities to bind themselves up in useless, aggravating, counter-productive contractual hells. You are my teacher (though too late, I think)…still, I am grateful for your example of brave, sensible behavior. The art speaks for itself. It is wonderful.

  6. Beautiful illustrations! I am so using these. Somewhere. Haven’t figured out where yet… 🙂

    I’m sorry it was such a hassle, but in the end, the museum subsidized an enrichment of the commons,for which I am grateful to them. And I’m grateful to you for creating them.

  7. A thought about “first use” clauses: if you ever grant one, make sure you set a time limit of some kind. If you had signed such an agreement with them, and they never actually used the work, they’d have a contract forbidding you to publish, effectively killing the work. (Ouch).

  8. These are absolutely beautiful! I’m glad you didn’t change a thing!

  9. OMG, like if Joseph Heller and Kafka got together and wrote a book about art and copyright.

    Oh well, sorry you’re so stoopid Brooklyn Museum.

    And thanks, Nina, for the visual aids I’ll be sure to show in Hinduism class in the fall, right after I show the class SStB.

  10. I have quietly enjoyed your art through Liz for years. These are wonderful and the story is wonderful and I’ll be following to see who picks up these images!

  11. Nina, these are fabulous images. I may be in touch about them eventually for qarrtsiluni, if something appropriate comes up. Good for you for sticking to your policy on the contract; they’re crazy not to use these!

  12. I’m going to reblog this on It is just the sort of material they’ll LOVE. And your art, as always, is perfect. Thanks for putting it out there.

  13. Thanks for putting this up Nina, it really is beautiful work, and I cannot believe the Museum didn’t use them in the end. Like you, I have spent nearly 20 years working with clients without the use of a contract. Usually a verbal contract has been enough and I have asked for a 50% deposit, just in case. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, and usually the bigger and more recognised companies and organisations have been the ones that have stuffed me around. I have never heard of a client asking you to sign a contract afterwards. I am very happy though that you finally got paid, and you have provided a very important lesson here for us all. Thanks.

  14. Nina,
    I’ve got access to a copy of Flash Professional for a few more days. Could you send me the vector graphics source files for conversion to svg?

  15. These would make fabulous T- and/or sweatshirts! Black on white. I want a hoodie.

  16. These are amazing!

    curious : “11 iconic Vishnu avatars”
    Did they specifically ask to include Buddha (which is an amusing/interesting addition, considering how Hinduism “assimilates” things. Also it is an interesting way to deal with another religion that was threatening it, by subjugating its “God” into their own pantheon.)?

  17. Buddha is usually counted among the “Ten Avatars of Vishnu.” There are more than 10 avatars – I don’t know how many have been counted, but stories abound with other avatars. Usually it’s 10 though. The 11th in this series is Balarama, Krishna’s brother, who I hadn’t before known was considered an Avatar. I believe Balarama occupies the Vishnu Avatar role for devotees of Krishna who see Krishna not as an avatar of Vishnu, but God in His own right. Balarama is apparently also considered an Avatar of Shesha, the multi-headed serpent on whom Vishnu reclines, which is why I pictured him with snake heads. More on the Avatars of Vishnu here.

  18. These would be really cool to be laser etched on coins or 3D printed or something. My friend Ana works for Shapeways – maybe I can put her in touch with you, and you can work out some kind of Creator Endorsed deal or something?

  19. Yay free licenses! I can wear these as tee shirts? I’m so gonna.

    Nina, you impress me time & time again with your smarts, as much as with your art. I may want to pick your brain someday, since I’ll be strikign out on my own soon.

    This is beautiful, iconic work, & I”m so glad you stuck to your guns & can share it.

  20. Really lovely images! Alas, I noticed that the lotus and sun give the negative space around his shoulders the appearance of … bat wings! Some fundamentalist is going to have a grand time with that! I’m still using it as my Facebook profile pic for a while, though, because of what it represents as well as because I’m a fan of your art.

  21. Thanks for sharing the story, but bigger thanks for creating such striking and engaging art.

    The Brooklyn Museum is clearly run by fools who have not only lost out on some wonderful artwork that would have suplemented their exhibition wonderfully, but shown themselves to be foolish paper-pushers. I hope they come to their senses at some point. Perhaps somebody else got invilved and that’s why they relented on the clauses and paid you more than promised.

    This is such lovely artwork that I would live to be able to use it on my line but it’s not quite in the same “feel”. However, if I did use it I would feel honour-bound to pay you something for it. I hope anybody else who does use it feels the same decency.

    Thanks again.

  22. Wow, sadly typical story. Gloria’s comment is perfectly put: “I’ve reached the conclusion that they’re never, as a matter of fact, interested in an illustration or a logo: What they really want, I suspect, is the power trip some people gets from screwing other people’s lives.”

    I met one illustrator who somehow has it in every deal that he does not do revisions.He offers a choice of ruff ideas and whatever one they pick he works up and that’s it. I don’t know quite how he pulls that off, but perhaps he turns down some jobs because of it. Most everyone else I know, gets to be mercilessly nit-picked and second guessed…and yes very often with this story’s out come outcome: ultimately the client pays up and then “goes in a different direction” at some later point…

    Wonderful logos though! Their loss is our gain…

  23. JB: Thanks! You saved me a step. 🙂

    Mike: I’m thinking of making bas-relief disk models in Blender for set decor. The models could also be printed, of course.

    I’m going to have to think about the easiest way to do the bas-relief conversion in Blender, but it should be fun. Another tutorial, perhaps. 🙂

    Selling on Shapeways is very easy to set up — it’s designed for that. You upload the model, set a price, then people buy it and you get a cut. Might look great as some sort of jewelry. They even print in silver nowadays (actually they print in wax, then do lost-wax replacement with silver). Pricey.

    They also do gold-plated stainless steel, which is probably cheaper.

  24. Nina,
    I always love hearing about your experiences. Thank you for sharing them so that all of us in the creative fields can benefit. (And we all benefit from the artwork you share, too!)

  25. I particularly like the part about the non-compete clause, and the way they tried to gloss over it. As if “we’re just limiting what you can create in the future” is somehow less awful than limiting your use of what you’ve already created. Wow.

  26. Nina, you really are the most complete and true artist I have ever had the pleasure knowing. These are just incredible!

  27. Great post.

    I draft contracts for a living – some of them much like one’s that will have been waved at you – I freelance like you and early on had this kind of experience.

    I’d quote to put something together and then the client would want lots of alterations: for example they’d change their mind about quite what they wanted to do, or they’d want to put in some legalese they read somewhere which I’d usually have to persuade them to remove as worse than useless. All of this takes time. Fine if I’m being paid by the minute but not at all fine otherwise.

    So I feel for you.

    We don’t have a “work for hire” doctrine here in my jurisdiction (England) so I’d be free to put all these contracts (suitably anonymised) up on my website under CC-BY-SA or something like that, but somehow I don’t think that anyone, even a lawyer like me, could enjoy reading them as much as looking at your wonderful pieces – even if I could execute contracts with the same artistic hand as you bring to fine art and I certainly can’t.

    I’m sorry that you got caught up in law. My profession has a lot to answer for I think sometimes. I’m glad it had a better outcome than it might have done. Your story may be a useful one when I’m telling artists how wonderful CC licences can be.

    Thanks again for these really lovely pictures. You have made my evening.

  28. Fabulous… IN fact I am going to collate all of this and put it up in my blog with all due credit to you of course if you dont mind

  29. Hey Nina.. Really liked the Parshuram and The kurma avataars.. Great going.. might be interesting to see how you got yourself to create these.. Great stuff..

  30. I really enjoy these images! I think you are very creative and talented, and I admire your dedication to making and spreading nice art. It makes me smile! Thanks!

  31. @Francis
    > but somehow I don’t think that anyone, even a lawyer
    > like me, could enjoy reading them

    if it’s not too much work just do it — often you just can’t imagine what other people will accomplish based on your work.

    For example I’ve imagined a couple of times what I would do if I found such a collection in my native language: I would make a web page were one answers a series of questions regarding his needs and gets a nice contract prototype to build upon. Very handy for individuals and small companies who can’t afford to pay a lawyer. Sure it would be far from perfect but better than the ones they come up on their own. And with a little bit of extra code the site would allow people to fine tune or update the wording, add comments and make the collection better in many ways

  32. Great work Nina. I have my doubts about Buddha being part of the pantheon, since there are only 10 avatars of Vishnu. Methinks Buddha was co-opted into the ranks to nip the spread of Buddhism, which dominated for a long long time until Adi Shankara came along.

    More power to you!

    Am sharing this on FB.

    Ramesh Chakrapani

  33. Also, I wish you had included Balarama’s plough. I think it’s ubercool when a farmer can turn warrior using his implement as weapon!

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