Tips for using Contracts

When art is your passion as well as your bread and butter, it’s easy to let the ‘boring business stuff’ fall behind. From financial stuff like Tax and accounts to marketing and business strategy, having an arts business really requires you to wear many different hats that you might not initially be comfortable with. One of those hats that you should keep in your hat cupboard is that of an amateur legal aid. You need to know your rights. You need to be able to understand what rights you are retaining or signing away when that sparkly new client comes to you with their commission agreement, you need to know what it is you are reading, and how it will affect you before you sign.

Now this isn't a post to scare you, or to at all suggest that everyone that presents you with a contract is trying in some way to screw you. Quite the opposite. Agreements are there to protect both parties involved, to remind each of what the others agreed responsibilities and expectations are as well as their own. Contracts can be powerful things, and understanding them and retaining a copy of them for yourself can save you a lot of headache down the line.

Now some industries have their own culture around agreements. For many Ad agencies and production houses I've worked with, beyond a NDA (Non-disclosure agreement), most other terms and expectations were agreed to by email. This isn't an ideal but is still safer than relying on terms and conditions of a commission to be agreed to over the phone or in person. A good general rule of practice for your arts biz is to always use protection (contract).

So I'm going to offer a couple of small suggestions here on working with a contract. Please note I am not a lawyer and all advice given is what has worked for me in the past. If you have specific legal issues or are requiring specific advice, you will need to talk with an actual commercial lawyer.

1 - If you are working for a company that has it's own commission agreement, make sure you read the contract fully, understand the terms you are signing to, and keep a copy for yourself. I have seen friends go through absolute legal nightmares purely because they didn't retain a copy of the agreement for themselves and someone took advantage of them. 

2 - If you are creating your own contract for your own freelance business, it pays to get a lawyer to have a look over your your contract before you start bandying it around. It also pays to create variations of the said contract for different circumstances. These circumstances will be dependant on; the services you offer, the type of clients you engage, the rights you are likely to release, etc.

3 - At the very least, get everything agreed upon in an email chain. This is important if you are creating your own contract also, as it can be handy to nut out the details before you formalise them in a contract. And if a contract isn't used, either through neglect, or culture, an email chain can save your skin or hold them to account. 

4 - The level of work heavily impacts the importance of a contract. I would feel less inclined to work without a contract for a job that would take me 2 weeks as apposed to 2 hours. Knowing the risks and understanding when it is appropriate to play it 'unsafe' is very important though. Use your own judgement and work out what is ok and not ok for you. But never be afraid to suggest working with a contract or comission agreement. Not using a contract is the exception and all clients should be fine with it especially if you have prepared one yourself.

5 - If the client is adamant on not using a contract, be cautious. There is a difference between not using a contract, and not wanting to use a contract. I would be very skeptical of any client who did not want to agree on paper to having to pay me for the work I was doing for them. So use caution.

Here are a couple of points to keep in mind when drafting your own contract

Deposit: Now a deposit can be a powerful thing when freelancing or working on commissioned work. But for a deposit, you really want to have an agreement drawn up. You need to decide for yourself how much to charge. Personally I think 20% is a good mark.

Break the production in to stages: Make sure you break down the process of you delivering work to your client in to stages. This helps in several ways, it helps the client understand where their money is going, helps you both know when they can expect to see something and it can create exit points for the contract for if the commission needs to be broken. An example of different stages, say for an illustration job could look like this; 1- concepting & thumbnailing, 2- rough layout, 3 - final layout, 4 final submission and deliverables.

Exit Clause: You also need to explore what would happen if a job needs to be terminated by either party before the work is completed. This is where breaking the job in to stages can cover you, so if the client decides that they need to terminate the job, for example, if they loose funding and can't pay you for the final deliverables and only realise half way through you working on the work... You can charge them for the work you have worked up until that point, depending on the terms of your agreement. I remember when I first started out, I would charge my private commissions in installments (20$ up front, 15% after roughs, 25% after final roughs, 40% upon completion). This became cumbersome and I soon ditched it for a simpler model. You are best working out what feels ok for you, and be open to revising this as your career progresses.

So there are some quick points on working with contracts in your art game. The greatest tool you can have with the business side of your Arts business is to learn as much as you can. I'll attach few links to the bottom of this post as well as some great resources I've found online for navigating these waters for myself in a dropb box link. 

Let me know if this has been helpful or if you have your own suggestions for info you would like to see me add.

Good luck and keep up the art!



Templates, info and examples of contracts & Invoices here