J.K. Rowling Is Crowdsourcing Kids' Illustrations for Her Next Book, and People Have Mixed Feelings

Robin Zlotnick - Author

May 28 2020, Updated 2:20 p.m. ET

J.K. Rowling is releasing a new children's book, The Ickabog, a fairytale (completely separate from the Harry Potter series) that she has been working on for more than 10 years. In a thread on Twitter, Rowling explained the origin of the story and her plans for publishing it, which include crowdsourcing illustrations from kids all over the world.

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She's publishing the book online for free, one chapter at a time, but she's also asking kids to illustrate the eventual physical book for her. "The best pictures in each publishing territory will be included in the books we intend to publish in November 2020," she wrote. 

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Parents and guardians can share their kids' entries to the contest by sharing them on Twitter with #TheIckabog. Sounds like a fun challenge. And as soon as the first chapter of the story was live online, kids began sending in their drawings. 

J.K. Rowling retweeted many of them and shared her reactions. Seems like a fun activity for creative kids, right? A chance to be featured in a real-live book by the author of Harry Potter would be a dream if I was a little kid.

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But as soon as people started participating in the challenge, the backlash started. Exploiting people for free work is not a new phenomenon, but people criticized J.K. Rowling for seemingly "stealing" illustrations for children and profiting off of them. 

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Although Rowling wrote she would donate her author royalties to organizations helping those most impacted by COVID-19, one Twitter user pointed out that the terms and conditions of the contest made it seem like the publisher could use any child's illustration for any purpose whatsoever without providing payment. 

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Any artist who's entered a contest knows what these terms can look like and how they exploit those who enter. And indeed, it does seem like the terms and conditions state that by entering a submission, you grant the "Sponsor and Author" "royalty-free, sub-licensable, irrevocable, perpetual" license to "use, share, distribute, tweet, retweet, post, repost, reproduce, publish, and display" the submission anywhere, for any purpose, forever.

In other words, once you submit a drawing, it's theirs, they can do anything with it, and they don't have to pay you anything. For some people, that might be OK, but this Twitter user wanted to make sure the terms were clear to those who want to enter the contest.

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"If you see this and your child wants to participate, by all means, fine. But PLEASE read the fine print, and talk to your child about it. Companies try to solicit free art / labour from fans all the time so they don't actually have to pay to hire people," they write.

And they're not wrong. Is this a cool opportunity for a kid to potentially be featured in a book? Sure. Is it also predatory and exploitative and a way for the company to skirt paying an actual illustrator? Kind of, yeah. It can be both things at the same time. J.K. Rowling responded to the criticism head-on.

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In her thread, she claims that Scholastic will use the drawings "on social media, in articles, and other materials around the contest" and nothing else. She writes, "Only WINNERS will be asked to transfer copyright and they will of course receive prizes in addition to inclusion in the book."

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Regardless of what Scholastic intends to do, that doesn't seem to be what the terms say. And what those "prizes" are and if they amount to what an illustrator would be paid is anyone's guess. Many parents jumped in to defend the contest and Rowling herself, and in one sense, they're not wrong!

"You retweeted my son's art and he is keeping everything crossed that he makes it into the book... What you are doing is wonderful, don't let this negativity deter you. You've made my boy so incredibly happy!" one parent tweeted.

So what do you think? Is this contest a fun opportunity for kids everywhere? Or is it an exploitative exercise that allows the publisher to take advantage of young people and "steal" their work? 

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