You are right to conclude that if you want to do this as a business you will need to negotiate a licence or series of licences. Clearly you could just go ahead and get some commissions and maybe the copyright owners would never get to hear about it because your work would be in private homes. But the risk is that you could face hefty bills if you are found out. And as I assume you would want to advertise your services, this would provide the best chance of being noticed by the big corporates.
Unfortunately I am pretty sure that there is no single agency you can contact to get a blanket licence, in the same way you can for most recorded music etc. It will be a case of establishing the owner of the copyright in each case and contacting them to explain what you wanted to do. With the big studios like Disney, that will be fairly easy as they have a licensing department*, but rights for some of the less well-known characters may not be owned by the film makers but some other company. For instance you may have heard in the news recently
that a pub called The Hobbit has been contacted by an obscure California based company which owns the rights to JRR Tolkien's works.
Whilst the Cartoon Channel may be able to assist in identifying the rights holders, it is most unlikely that they will own any rights themselves.
Don't just think in terms of copyright. Most if not all the best-known cartoon characters will also be registered as Trade Marks, and indeed using this route may help you to track down the rights owners more easily, by using the UK intellectual Property Office
site to check out characters by name, for example as I have done here with the name 'Popeye'
. Obviously if you are successful in getting a licence to reproduce a character, this will cover both the copyright and trademark aspects.
*For example here's what the Disney website has to say about their licensing operations:
The Walt Disney Company has a large portfolio of intellectual property that the company manages through relationships with a range of licensees, vendors and retailers. Products bearing Disney characters, stories, songs and brand names include a wide range of categories such as apparel, footwear, toys, stationery, published materials, food, CDs and DVDs, home furnishings and consumer electronics, among others. Disney has granted rights to more than 8,000 businesses to use our intellectual property in the manufacture of such products. Some of these licensees are large, even global, companies and retailers, while many others are medium-sized and small companies located around the world.
The majority of Disney-branded products are manufactured by licensees, managed by Disney Consumer Products (DCP). Studio Entertainment, Parks and Resorts, Media Networks and Disney Internet Media Group also source Disney merchandise for retail sale or for promotional purposes through licensee and vendor relationships.
We use the term "licensee" when we refer to the companies to whom we license the rights to manufacture Disney merchandise for distribution or sale to others and "vendor" when we refer to the companies we engage to manufacture Disney merchandise for us. Our agreements with both licensees and vendors include specific obligations which licensees and vendors must secure from each factory and supplier they engage in producing Disney merchandise.
Example of a Licensee Relationship: Company X seeks to create a shirt with an image of Mickey Mouse. This company reaches out to Disney to negotiate and conclude a license agreement for the right to reproduce Mickey's image on shirts in exchange for certain licensing fees and royalties. Company X then produces the shirt through its own supply chain and sells it to consumers (or retailers).
Example of a Vendor Relationship: Disney seeks to create a shirt with a Mickey Mouse image. Disney reaches out to Company Y to negotiate and conclude a vendor agreement for the supply of shirts with Mickey Mouse's image. Company Y then produces the shirt through its own supply chain, and sells it to Disney for the agreed price.