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Ephemera collection turns into art licensing venture

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Kathy Alpert’s journey into art licensing began when she saw a vintage-style postcard in a card shop that mirrored the mid-century ephemera that she had collected for years. She wondered if she couldn’t use the thousands of images she had saved from old magazines, prints, and photography – now in the public domain ¬¬– and similarly license them for use in products? She launched PostMark Press 12 years ago as a stationary wholesaler and then started approaching manufacturers about licensing newly enhanced pictures of ’50’s housewives, Victorian suffragettes, screen stars, and ’60’s office workers, providing witty copy to go with the designs. “I’ll change the background or maybe add new elements, such as a glass of champagne, then come up with a funny saying,” said Alpert, who is based in Watertown and also serves on the board of directors of the Greeting Card Association.

Q: What does it mean to license art?
A: Licensing is a huge marketing tool ¬– it’s the process of leasing a trademarked or copyrighted property such as a design, slogan, name, or logo. It could be licensing a celebrity’s name like Hannah Montana to put on a toy or accessory, or a brand like Harley Davidson. When I went to the Licensing International Expo in Las Vegas, I couldn’t believe the things that people were trying to license ¬– even household cleaners like Lysol. The biggest trend right now is dead celebrities like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

Q: What’s your licensing niche?
A: Although I respect the original ephemera, I create original designs from previously published material and infuse the display with contemporary humor. It might be an old ad from a Post magazine; I’ll remove the words and any distracting background and add some sort of color or subtle pattern then reformat it. I’ll give the licensee a layered file in case they decide to make changes during production. My sweet spot is the popular culture of the ’30, ’40s and ’50s. I’m intrigued by how women were portrayed through fashion and how they evolved into the work force.

Q: How do you make income from licensing?
A: A licensing agreement must be negotiated with each licensee – the terms vary greatly. My income comes from royalties based on sales for each individual design, and some companies provide an advance against royalties. For example, one company pays a $400 advance for each image or design selected, and then after the advance is ‘earned out,’ a quarterly royalty kicks in based on 6 percent of wholesale sales. Of course, they have to back out the cost of returned product. Typically, but not always, a licensee will make a deal for multiple designs - a "collection." Another licensee of mine pays no advance but provides an 8 percent royalty. All royalty checks arrive with reports detailing sales of specific designs.

Q: How do you deal with copyright?
A: If you come up with your own spin on a vintage piece of art, then you own that design. Previously, you needed to register for copyright protection but now this isn’t necessary; any original art is protected. Product lines are looking for exclusivity; they want to be the first person out of the gate selling it.

Q: You have files and files of retro images – how did you start collecting all of these?
A: My passion for vintage postcards, mid-century magazines, old prints and photography, antique matchbooks, collectible calendars, and other colorful pieces of the past go back to my childhood days at my grandfather's farm in New Hampshire where he stored all his papers. I spent rainy days exploring old Life magazines, photographs and postcards, and when he passed away, I pulled up a U-Haul and packed as much as I could into it. Then someone told me about Brimfield Fair and I also discovered postcard dealers, and it was all over. I was hooked.

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