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6 Unlucky Artists Who Never Got Paid for Their Famous Works

The man who invented the smiley face is not smiling.
Composites by The Creators Project Netherlands

Your "nice-guy" attitude might not help you make it in the art world: sometimes, someone else will get filthy rich off your stroke of genius. There are hundreds of examples of artists and performers who were just a bit too laconic to make the most of their logo designs, guitar riffs, or novel ideas, but these are perhaps a fe of the most poignant stories. Shed a tear for these Bad Luck Brians of the art world, if only to ensure that their stories will never happen to you.


1. Nike

The logo for the biggest sports brand in the world wasn't created by a gigantic marketing agency, but by a student. In 1971, design student Carolyn Davidson invented the infamous "swoosh." Nike founder Phil Knight, who gave her the job, initially thought it wasn't great. He paid Davidson is $35 for it.

When Nike, in 1983, made it onto to the stock market, Davidson's allowance finally followed. Knight invited her to lunch and gave her a ring with the logo in the shape of a diamond (classy), along with an envelope of full shares now worth about $630,000. Knight's guilt was probably too big—unfortunately, we can now reveal that Davidson's the only one on this list who made it out well.

2. Bob Ross

The number of times I've been left alone on a lame Saturday night, listening open-mouthed to the tranquil voice of Bob Ross can't be counted on one hand. Ross introduced me to the concept of inner peace, thanks to his happy little clouds and clichéd but magcal wet-on-wet oil painting techniques. He also did his famous painting sessions, which were broadcast by PBS from 1983 to 1994, entirely for nothing. For the Good Bob, it wasn't about money, but about painting. Thankfully, because of the fame he gained through his show, ended up with quite a lot of DVDs to sell. But come on, Bob, years of TV for free?!

3. "Bitter Sweet Symphony"

The history of musical plagiarism goes back almost as far as music itself. Take "Blurred Lines" sampling of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up," for instance, or Vanilla Ice, who still claims that "Ice Ice Baby" does not sound like Queen's "Under Pressure." In the case of The Verve, the violin part of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" sounds suspiciously like that of "The Last Time," a B-side by the Rolling Stones. This was enough for Allen Klein, the Stones' former manager, to publicly pillory the young upstarts. Remarkably, The Verve had already received permission from Decca Records, who released the Stones' album, to use the sample.


A protracted lawsuit decided that The Verve would not get a penny for what would eventually become their biggest hit. All the royalties went to Klein. The song took on an even more bitter aftertaste when it was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1998. Shortly thereafter, Richard Ashcroft, the lead singer of The Verve, burned-out, and disappeared into years of musical theater.

4. The Smiley

From hippie protests in the 60s to the Whatsapp emoticons of today, the classic "☺" has taken on many forms. But what if, during an adolescence that resulted in the invention of said smiley, resulted in having no further ambitions with the simple design? That's the story of Harvey Ball, who was asked by Hanover Insurance to create a symbol to motivate its employees. Ball took ten minutes to think of the familiar yellow smiley and was paid $45, not realizing that it was perhaps wise to put the rights to the scrawl in his name. Later, in 1970, the smiley went viral when Bernard and Murray Spain began selling T-shirts with the smiling face. In 2000, they sold their franchise for about $500,000,000. And Harvey Ball? Sometimes you can find him signing smiley badges during fan club sessions.

5. The AC/DC logo

The AC/DC lightning bolt logo is perhaps as iconic as the band itself. In fact, it was designed by Gerard Huerta in 1977, and was not intended to be band's logo. Huerta wrote in his bill for the band (the exact amount is not known) that his font should be used only once for the album Let There Be Rock. On the next album, the font used was different, but a manager later decided that Huerta's old red logo could still be exploited. Without informing the designer, the band used used it for all of their album covers, posters, and T-shirts.


6. Beat it, Van Halen!

There are also people who so suffused with talent that they don't seek money for their masterpieces. Take Eddie Van Halen, who, during a day of recording with Michael Jackson, created one of the most famous guitar solos in the world in 20 minutes. "Here, you can it," was all he apparently said. In an interview with CNN, Van Halen later explained, "I did it as a favor."

"Quincy had called me up and asked me if I wanted to do it. Honest-to-God's truth, the band's policy was 'We don't do things outside of the band.' And everyone was out of town, so I didn't have anybody to ask. I figured, who's gonna know if I play on this black kid's record? But the funniest thing of all, I actually rearranged the song." He also never got credit for it on the album cover: there's just a very big question mark behind the word guitar. Jones allegedly promised Van Halen a six-pack of beer as thanks, but that's never happened, according to the guitarist. Might as well jump.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Creators Project Netherlands. 


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