Contracts and copyright: When to draw the line
Ask any freelance creative what their dream commission would be and no doubt their reply will involve a company name you recognise. We all want the big jobs; the brands that put our name in lights; that show the world we have made it in some way. So, why would any creative turn down a job that would do that for them? Jobs that may give them heaps of exposure and boost credentials. Why would they turn down such work? I hear you ask. Well, it may have somethong to do with some small print...
One of the things that people don't tell you about before going into a profession as a freelance creative, particularly if you work in advertising, is all the time you have to spend reading through contracts and non-disclosure agreements before you've even agreed a price. Admittedly, I'm no lawyer, and I'm easily overwhelmed by legal terminology, but by the end of this year there's a chance I could write an episode of Law and Order (though admittedly, it may not make the most edge-of-your-seat viewing). Perhaps a lot of big advertising agencies know that freelancers are unlikely to be clued up on legal jargon, nor can most afford legal advice, or perhaps the contracts have just been in place since 1852 and no one wants to update the language to make them understandable to normal human beings. And, at the end of the day, I get why we need agreements. Although I am someone who much prefers a more laid back approach, working with clients based on good relationship and trust, I'm also aware that everyone wants to cover their backs and to make as much money as possible. There's nothing wrong with contracts if they work both ways.
But the common theme with most contracts, on behalf of big corporate companies, comes down to one thing: copyright. You hereby sign away all moral rights to your work, usually with no extra payment. You have no right to dispute it if the company uses your work on every television channel across the world; You can't kick up a fuss if they edit it horribly, or if they put someone else's name to it. It's no longer yours. A lot of these companies probably know full well that the vast majority of freelance creatives will sign a contract in order to simply pay the bills. Some freelancers may think some of the clauses are unfair, but they feel they have no voice to argue against such big corporations when they have mouths to feed, and, quite frankly, they can't be bothered. Who can blame them? After all, nobody wants to spend hours negotiating contracts or come across as being an arse to work with, do they? We all want great relationships with our clients, especially the big ones - we want to put their names on our websites and have them recommend us to other big companies. We all want to get in with the powerful people. So we brush it under the carpet and we just say that's the way it is.
Now, maybe you think it's slightly ambitious to think that freelancers can call out the big guys. Maybe we're stupid to throw away all that exposure and a week's wages. But when you see the value in something, you have a tendency to stick up for it. And it's one thing to stick up for yourself, but It's a whole different ball game when you see exploitation happening all around you in the creative industry. So I stick up for my profession like it's an old friend; I strongly believe in it. I believe in it's ability to to sell stuff; to powerfully persuade people; to create things of beauty and provocation. I see the hours put in; the blood sweat and tears; the bin full of rejected ideas and rough drawings; the late nights trying to get stuff right. I see something unique in each creative professional's work and I think that's worth something. In fact, I think it's worth a hell of a lot, actually. Or, at least a fair price to own it.
I've recently given a few talks to young creative students about my profession. I see a room full of brilliant, creative minds and I feel like cheering them on; like sticking up for them; like telling them not to sign away their copyright to big corporate companies. Why? Because big corporate companies can afford to pay creatives fairly for their time and they can afford to pay freelance creatives for the usage that they need it for. Why would they need the copyright if they're only going to use it for what they've said they're going to use it for? And if they're not, then surely they should pay for it accordingly with what will likely be a sum on a par with a drop in the ocean to them. And how can I go into a room full of young creatives and tell them how valuable a creative profession is if I've just signed away the very rights to the work I'm showing them? If I was less bothered about producing work of high quality I probably wouldn't give a damn. This isn't about being arrogant or making sure I have a claim to fame; I just want the exploitation of creative freelancers to stop.
Of course, I don't want to tar all big companies with the same brush - most are brilliant to work with. But the way I want to work is through good business relationships. I want people to buy into my work because it's good, not because I'll do anything for a bit of exposure. For the future of the creative industry, something has to give. Unless we, as creative professionals, start sticking up for our own work, and in turn our profession, nothing is ever going to change. We're made to feel uneasy about questioning the project terms, despite the fact that companies stand to gain so much from our work. If it were that easy they would be able to do it themselves. And you can bet that if a large corporate company were to exploit an advertising agency's work, the ad agency would hardly sit there and take it on the chin, would they? If you're an art director at a creative agency yourself, imagine getting a contract with a big company that wanted to pay you the same as a job for the local corner shop And now imagine that your company had no rights to the work either or that you couldn't shout about your genius project ideas on social media. Instead you're just paid a day rate and told to keep quiet. Isn't that what happens with a lot of freelancers?
Thankfully, I've begun to see a few agencies popping up who treat their freelancers with a bit more respect and see them as a valuable contribution, not just in terms of help during busy periods, but in terms of appreciating the professionalism and the unique skills each freelancer brings. I've seen those that credit their freelancers - those who collaborate - and there is a buzz about what they create together. There is more opportunity for better outcomes because the freelancers they use are not just a commodity, but a source of great ideas and good work.
So, though I will willingly read through contracts in the hope of great opportunities, and though I know that contracts are important and have their place, the time I have spent reading through very one-sided contracts, unpaid, could have freed me up to work with the people I love working with. My clients speak highly of me and my work and surely that says it all. I am always happy to negotiate, to accommodate the client's needs as much as I can, but when it comes to projects that require more than simply artworking – those that require ideas, art direction and unique illustrative work – should that not be taken into account? I may be of the minority, but I stick up for my old friend creativity: I see its usefulness, I feel its impact, I know its value.
What do you think? Should creative professionals take more of a stand?
ps. Anybody know the producer of Law and Order? I have an amazing script idea.
(...okay, maybe not)
Since writing this, a number of freelance creatives have got in touch and told me their stories of exploitation - some involving jobs from very big and reputable companies. They got in touch with me privately because they did not want to upset any clients, which I respect, but I think it's important to add that this is happening all the time and freelancers feel they can't speak up about it.