Robin Brickman, a graphic artist, went to Washington last week and painted a grim picture for Congress.
The Providence, R.I., illustrator told the Senate Judiciary Committee that publishers, using the US copyright laws, are taking unfair advantage of free-lance photographers, writers, and artists. She told the committee, chaired by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland, the copyright laws had trapped her into a world of minimal pay. She added because of the laws, ''I will never be able to make a comfortable living or advance significantly in my field.''
Ms. Brickman's testimony pitted the artist - she was testifying as a member of the Graphic Artists Guild - against the publishing establishment, which contended any changes in the current laws would be costly in money and time.
What the Graphic Artists Guild, and a group of 40 other artists' and writers' organizations, are trying to get Congress to change is the ''work for hire'' part of the copyright law. Under the work-for-hire laws, buyers of free-lance work obtain full rights to the work submitted by the artist and can alter it, or reuse it, without paying any additional fees to the artist.
Ms. Brickman illustrated how this works. She had been commissioned by Doubleday & Co. at the end of 1979 to do 27 black and white interior illustrations for the book ''Wildlife Stories of Faith McNulty'' for $2,000. At the time, she recalled, ''I knew that the $2,000 offered would make the difference in keeping me afloat.'' Although she asked the publisher for more money or a limited-use contract - allowing the publisher one-time use of the illustrations - she was told, ''I either sign this contract or I don't get the job.'' With an income that year of $6,995, she had little bargaining leverage.
Later, Doubleday chose her illustration of a whooping crane as the illustration for the book jacket and added color to it. Ms. Brickman neither received any further compensation nor was consulted about coloring. The cover of the book was reprinted in the Washington Post and later the Orion nature magazine. She says the recognition ''was nice, but I couldn't think about it much, because the low pay, loss of control, and reuse kept nagging at me.''
In an interview, Ms. Brickman said that what happened to her is representative of other artists. And, in fact, the guild submitted testimony from other artists who deal with textbook publishers, magazines, and movie companies.
The publishers, on the other hand, assert that the work-for-hire contracts are fair. Carol Risher, director of copyright for the Association of American Publishers, says the publishers often initiate the work and assign the work-for-hire authors to write according to publisher specifications.
''In the case of an instructional text,'' she states, ''the publisher may tell the writing team exactly what to write, in what order it should be and in what format. . . . And they may decide to leave some author out in a revision. They want to be able to make those decisions.'' She said the law as it stands ''is carefully written, balancing the interest of the authors and publishers.''
Ironically, the hearings that Robin Brickman was testifying at did not deal directly with her concern. Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi had proposed legislation that would modify the definition of work-for-hire by excluding contributions to collective works such as magazines, movies, and encyclopedias. Under the proposed legislation, the author would hold the rights to the work and would transfer that right to the buyer of the work. According to Tad Crawford, however, general counsel representing the Graphic Artists Guild, the groups are hopeful that Senator Cochran will amend the proposed legislation. They would like to see the work-for-hire provision changed so that all free-lancers hold title and rights to any work produced under contract.
In response to Ms. Brickman's account of her low income, one witness suggested she should have negotiated a better compensation package. He said her problem may be due to her inability as a negotiator. And Ms. Risher stated in an interview that ''as Ms. Brickman gets more published she can negotiate better contracts. This is a fact of life.''
At the hearings, however, the sympathies of the audience became known when one testifier told a story about a young man who stopped an older man on the street and asked, ''How do I get to Carnegie Hall.'' The older man replied, ''With practice, my boy, with practice.'' At that comment, the gallery at the Senate hearing hooted and groaned.
In California, state laws relating to copyrights were changed last week when Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed into law a bill similiar to what the arts groups are asking for from Congress. The arts groups maintained that the California law ''sends a direct signal to Washington to provide a federal remedy to the work-for-hire problem.'' It is not known how President Reagan, a former actor, feels about the legislation. But both the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, which represent actors and actresses , support changes in the law.