Design Dilemma: A Client That Wants a Contract?

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Has the apocalypse come upon us? A client wants a contract and isn’t relying on the line, “you can trust me” … mostly because it’s a case of them not trusting you. Still, a contract is a contract.

Margaret A. writes: Hello, I have recently decided to start my own company. I had a whole load of ideas, but not the skills to put them to paper, so I am hiring an lllustrator. I am a very small business with no name and don’t know how copyright works. I was hoping that I could write out a contract stating that she cannot claim the designs are hers, how does this work?

Join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…

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Contracts Are Everywhere

Contracts are everywhere on the internet and most of them are free, but which ones do you trust? One of the more established contract and form sites is Docracy.

Aside from the usual legal forms, Docracy has a large selection of forms and contracts for creatives, thanks in most part to the ability for people to use existing contracts, change them slightly and repost them to that section. If you can’t find exactly what you are looking for, then start with one of the basic contracts and pick and choose from other versions. Best of all, you can incorporate parts of the copyright law into a contract such as Margaret has inquired about.

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Why should you have a contract with a client? When I was starting out in the field, a client would say we didn’t need a contract as I could trust him/her. I would reply, “I trust you completely, but if you get hit by a bus tonight, I have to have some agreement for people I might not trust.”

“The time for shame is over. 2014 is upon us and it’s time for creatives to catch up with our own technology and use it to protect ourselves.”

There was seldom an audible, or understandable response to that. Everyone knows what a contract is, and people who don’t want them have a big issue with a commitment to their word.

NDAs

There are other forms you will need as the digital age envelopes us. A Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) for instance. Usually a client will issue one, but if you want to produce that idea that has sat in the back of the idea shelf for years, then familiarize yourself with the document. Any work with a licensed or intellectual property will have a NDA attached to it.

If you work for a large corporation, they will have several documents you must sign and return before work commences. The first is a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). It’s standard and something you shouldn’t fear signing but read it and understand the terms.

Basically, it says you will not discuss the project with anyone else and will set a period of time that you can’t put your samples in a portfolio or on a web site or blog. Make sure you understand what that time period is as the ramifications can be severe!

Contracts are a Part of Business

There will always be clients who just don’t want to deal with a contract. You can either trust them or not. One leads to not being protected and the inevitability of you, as vendor, not being happy in the end. The other protects both parties.

This is the important fact to communicate to the client. Design is not ethereal nothingness. You are creating a product that will define a company and the brand by which they are known. A contract assures smooth, competent and legal avenues for the best possible outcome.

“Those who don’t use contracts also tear away at our entire profession. When a client claims he/she has never had to sign a contract before, it hampers our ability to raise the professional view we all need to run successful careers.”

There’s an interesting key to the copyright law and it strengthens the need for a contract — copyright can only be transferred in writing. Yet another argument for a contract with a client. I once told a client who was hesitant about signing a contract that it protected his company from me. He had a confused look on his face and I explained that I might go totally insane and deny I ever gave up the copyright at a later date and sue him for more money. Then I laughed maniacally.

He didn’t sign it but he wasn’t going to do it anyway. I learned if I didn’t do the laugh, clients were more amenable to sign the contract. I just laughed inside.

Now, with the Internet and digital initiatives that come and go with the blink of an eye, contracts protect all parties and that’s the argument that has weight. Payment, disclosures and rights transferred can only be trusted to writing. If you think you’re going to insult your client by bringing up the question of a written agreement, you need to re-evaluate your place in this business or just get used to gambling with each project.

Those who don’t use contracts also tear away at our entire profession. When a client claims he/she has never had to sign a contract before, it hampers our ability to raise the professional view we all need to run successful careers. Contracts usage is a united front preached by every professional design organization and guild. Make sure design is part of that united front.

We keep hearing the importance of a contract with a client, and the reasons why they don’t happen. 39% of all freelancers in a recent poll said they do not use a contract or any written agreement with a client. The time for shame is over. 2014 is upon us and it’s time for creatives to catch up with our own technology and use it to protect ourselves.

Happy New Year!

Send Us Your Dilemma!

Do you have a design dilemma? Speider Schneider will personally answer your questions — just send your dilemma to dilemma@designshack.net

Speider has created designs for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, and Viacom, among other notable companies, and is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He writes for global blogs on design ethics and business practices, and has contributed to several books on the subject of business for designers.

Featured image ©GL Stock Images

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