New Photographers: Signed Contracts Needed at the Start of Every Project

“He Walks Dogs” by Damian Gadal from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I recently heard a question from a new photographer. They are new to the business and focused on building their brand and rapport with potential clients. Their question was, “Should I have a contract on hand at the beginning stages of my business?”

My response was an emphatic: “Yes!”

Photography Contracts: Every Job, Every Time

A contract is a relationship management document. It puts everyone on the same page about what each side is giving and getting and sets the expectations about how each side should behave.

I tell my photographer clients to never accept a job without a signed contract, this applies even to TFP shoots (trade for photos). Your contract should outline what the client is hiring you to do, how/when you’ll be compensated, how the client can use the images, and who owns the copyright. It should also have terms that address how problems will be resolved.

If the Prospect Balks at a Contract

If you have a prospective client who says they “don’t think a contract is necessary,” turn and run. This raises to red flags for me: either they don’t understand how the business works, or they have devious reasons for not wanting a contract that could bite you in the butt in the future.

One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was, “You never regret the client you didn’t take.” I have had no regrets about declining a representation when a client balks at how I do business. Every time I decline one of these clients, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.

Don’t Worry that Requiring a Contract will Push Clients Away

Don’t worry about being perceived as “pushy” my holding firm that a contract is required. You can be polite and respectful while say, “This is how I do business. If you don’t want to sign a contract, that’s fine, but you won’t be working with me.”

You set the rules for how you work with clients. If they balk at your contract (assuming it’s reasonable), they shouldn’t be your client. A reasonable client would expect you to require a contract. A person with any business acumen won’t want to work with you without one.

Let the prospects who don’t want contracts to self-select out. If you have problems with a client at the beginning of the relationship, it’s an indicator that they will be problematic throughout the project.

If the prospect asks for a referral to another photographer, I recommend saying, “All the reputable photographers I know won’t take on a client without a signed contract.”

It’s Cheaper and Easier to Prevent Legal Problems than to Fix Them

This has been proven time and time again in my legal career. When a client comes to me with a business dispute, one of my first questions is, “What does your contract say?” When my client doesn’t have a contract, I have to piece together the terms of their agreement from emails, text messages, and the parties’ actions. Often my client spends more just having me piece these things together than what it would have cost them to have a custom contract template made.

Additionally, in a dispute, it’s much easier to create a demand letter than references the terms the other side agreed to and back them into a corner where they have to try to defend the indefensible rather than assert what the terms of the agreement are from the assembly of bits and pieces of communications and actions that the other side can more easily debate.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you need help with your photography contracts and managing client expectations, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common questions professional photographers face, including what terms to include in every contract template. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list to stay in the loop, and get first dibs on discounts!

Why Contracts Have So Many Definitions

https://www.flickr.com/photos/eleaf/2561831883

Iron Horse Bicycle Race Durango Women 10″ by Eleaf from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

This week, I had a chat with someone who was concerned about the media release provision in a contract to be in a cycling race. It said by signing up for the race, you give the organizers permission to use any video or images of you, your likeness, you name, and your biographic information for any purpose without need any additional information from you. He was worried that the race organizers could sell his life story without his permission.

I’ve seen this provision on every race contract I’ve signed – and it wasn’t one of the ones I altered. This type of provision is on lots of contracts, event tickets, even on A-frame signs around the state fair. Organizers want to use the photos from their event to promote the organization and its activities. They want to be able to make you their poster child if they snap an amazing photo of you. They want to be able to caption a race photo with “Chris Jones, 37, of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico . . .”

These organizers don’t want to sell your story to make the next Lifetime Movie. I know this because (1) they don’t know your life story and (2) they’re not in the business of sell stories for the next movie of the week.

This conversation reminded me of why contracts have so many definitions. Sometimes they start with pages of definitions. They help eliminate confusion and avoid disputes when questions arise down the line.

If there is a dispute about the meaning of a word in a contract, and both sides have a reasonable interpretation of it, the court will side with the person who didn’t draft the contract, unless the contract states otherwise. (Check your jurisdiction’s rules to see if the same rule exists where you live.)

Going back to the would-be racer, I told them if they had concerns about what a term in the agreement meant, they should email the organizers for clarification. (Never be afraid to ask questions about a contract before signing it.) If there’s a dispute later surrounding the meaning of the provision, they would be able to use the email response as the basis for their reasonable belief as to what it meant and to counter any contradictory statement by the other side.

If you’re in a situation where you need to create, draft, or negotiate a contract, please call a contract lawyer for help. (This week, my editor sent me an FYI email about a company in Columbia that is selling a “Pack Of Professionally Drafted Legal Contracts” for $24. I responded with “Let me know how that $24 contract holds up when challenged in court.”)

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How to Legally Use User-Generated Content

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoidberg72/16243539933
Selfie by dr_zoidberg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s a question I get from companies and their marketers: What are the legal dos and don’ts for using user-generated content? These are situations where a company wants to use a photo, video, or text created by one of their fans, usually from a site like Instagram, Facebook, or Trip Advisor. Many companies merely want to approach the person through the platform where they found the content they want to use and ask for permission to use it. While this strategy is convenient, it may not be in the company’s best interest.

Using Content Within a Platform

It’s easiest when a company wants to share someone’s post within the social media platform – e.g., sharing someone’s Instagram photo on the company’s Instagram. Many social media sites build this option into the platform where you don’t even have to ask for permission to share someone’s post on another’s account.  

Of course, I’m a risk-adverse lawyer so I tell my clients to review the terms of service first to see what happens just in case it turns out the person who created the post you shared didn’t have the right to do so and now you have to deal with the fallout. Depending on the circumstances, I might contact the person to ask the person if they took the photo (which would indicate if they’re likely the copyright holder), try to verify that the original poster is complying with the platform’s rules

Using Content Across Different Platforms

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. These are the situations where you want to take content from someone’s post on one platform and share it on a different social media site, your website, or another third-party platform. For this situation, I recommend you have a contract drafted by a lawyer. You could have them create a template for you if curating user-generated content is part of your marketing plan.

If I were creating a contract template for obtaining permission to use content created by a user or fan, I’d likely include terms such as:

  • The user owns the IP in the content: either they created it or they have permission to use it
  • The user has authority to grant the company permission to use the content
  • The user grants the company a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sublicensable, paid-in-full, royalty-free license to the company to use the content for any purpose without needing the person’s consent or credit, including the creation of derivative works (or in the alternative, that the user grants the company a copyright assignment)
  • The user will reimburse the company’s legal fees and damages if it is accused of wrongdoing because the company used the user’s content

Such a contract would also include boilerplate verbiage, like a dispute resolution provision that states how the company and user will resolve disputes if one occurs.

Always Apply Reality

In any potential legal situation, be sure to apply reality. If a company wants to use a photo with two people in it, whoever posted the image may not be able to speak on behalf of the other person in the photo, and you may need release from identifiable people to avoid being accused of violating their right of publicity.

Additionally, it will likely take longer to get permission if you want to use images and other content across platforms. Be sure to build that into your timeline if your marketing plan involves using user-generated content.

There are also those who may question whether it’s worthwhile to have a lawyer create a contract for these circumstances. When there are no issues, a contract may seem superfluous; however, contracts are imperative in situations where there is a dispute and/or the parties forget the terms of their agreement. When you work with your lawyer to create you contract, make sure it has provisions that will apply to situations that are likely to occur as well as the worst-case scenarios.

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Time is Scarcest Commodity of Entrepreneurship

Shadow by Martin Lopatka from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Being an entrepreneur is one the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in my life. I have almost total autonomy over the type of work I do, and I get to hand-pick my clients. I get to write books, speak at conferences all over the world, and develop new products. Although my work allows me to be involved in creative projects, the one thing I can’t create is more time.

As an entrepreneur, I feel like I’m constantly running against the clock. There are only so many hours in the day, and every time I accept an invitation to an event or take on a new project, there are other opportunities I have to decline. I’ve also learned that I have to allow enough time to do basic things like rest; otherwise, I’ll get overwhelmed, short circuit my system, and crash-and-burn where I’ll need several days to recoup.

The older I get and the more complex my projects get, the more selfish I’ve become with my time. I’m grateful to have a receptionist who screens my calls and makes people contact me via email to set up appointments. The reason for this is simple: when it’s your turn, you’ll get my undivided attention; when it’s not your turn, you don’t get to distract me from my work. Every distraction is a potential delay. So, the fewer distractions, the more I can get done, and the more people I can help in the long run.

One of the biggest frustrations I have to deal with is people who waste my time, especially when I’ve set aside time for them, or worse, arranged my entire day around the expectation that they would meet a deadline or arrive for an appointment. I often run a “tight ship” when it comes to my schedule, so a delay can throw off the rest of the day. I’ll have to rearrange my calendar – and often not just for that day – and if I get angry on top of it, that can be really hard to shake off.

I had such an experience recently – a contractor working on my condo was more than an hour late for our appointment. He was supposed to arrive between 8:30 A.M. and 9:30 A.M. – and he didn’t show up until 10:30 A.M., and he didn’t call. While I waited for him, I channeled my frustrated energy into drafting a contract template where the parties agree to respect the other’s time and the penalty for wasting my time is paying me (at my hourly rate) for the time they wasted. (Yes, I had another lawyer put a set of eyeballs on this contract to verify it was legally sound. He said he was going to steal it to use in his life.)

This is a contract I want to use with all service providers moving forward. I wrote it to put everyone on the same page from the beginning of the professional relationship, where both sides commit to being on time for the other person. They acknowledge that I’m an entrepreneur, and as such, when they waste my time, they interfere with my ability to make a living.

This agreement is not as bitchy as it may sound on its face. I have to commit to following their policies for scheduling and rescheduling appointments too, and there are allowance for some delays – hitting every red light, etc. If it’s a situation where insurance is involved, it requires them to let me know two hours before my appointment time if there are any issues with getting the right approvals, so I’m in the loop, and perhaps it’s something a call from me can rectify.

Besides augmenting my service contracts with this mutual agreement to respect the other’s time, I want to bring the Law of Two Feet back into my life with a vengeance. If my needs aren’t being met wherever I am, or in whatever I’m doing, I have permission to peace out and do something different. It’s been a while since I’ve walked out of a meeting, but it’s something I may have to start doing more often.

One of the things I love about writing contracts is they can be customized for your needs (as long as the terms are legal). If you’re interested in getting a custom contract, you can contact me directly or a business lawyer in your community. I regularly post about legal issues impacting entrepreneurs on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

When’s the Last Time You Reviewed Your Contract Templates?

Inspiration as Commodity by exquisitur from Flickr

Inspiration as Commodity by exquisitur from Flickr

I had the pleasure of speaking to the Photographer’s Adventure Club last week. In addition to discussion the basics of copyright and how to protect their rights in their work, we talked a lot about the importance of contracts.

I know the subject of contracts makes a lot of people’s eyes glaze over – it’s that fine-print-legalese-crap-that-no-one-reads-anyway stuff. A lot of people think contracts are boring and a lot of contracts are . . . but they don’t have to be.

I love contracts. They create the basis of so many relationships – whether they are written, oral, or pieced together through a series of emails. Too often people come to me with a question about a problem in one of their professional relationships and when I ask, “What does your contract say about this?” the answer is “I don’t know” or “We don’t have a contract.” We can still resolve the problem but we could have avoided a lot of headaches and frustration by putting everything on paper in advance so everyone’s on the same page from the beginning.

Having contract templates is often the best way to create the relationship with others that you want. In regards to photographers they should have a file of contract templates for clients who hire them, for other photographers when they have to hire an additional person to work a shoot, a copyright license for publications, a model release, and a location release. And contracts don’t have to be long, complicated, or riddled with crazy legalese to be effective. I prefer to write contracts in straight-forward English and I wish more of my legal counterparts would get on board with this idea.

And contracts can be fun. Recently I saw an episode of Man v. Food where Adam Richman took on the Hellfire Challenge at Smoke Eaters – 12 wings covered in crazy hot sauce. Before he could begin the challenge he had to sign a waiver that required the person signing to acknowledge that “I am an idiot.”

You can put almost anything you want in your contract as long as it isn’t illegal. And if you downloaded your contract templates off the internet, that’s not a bad place to look for ideas, but you should at least consult an attorney to make sure it suits your needs before you start using it. If the contract is valid and you sign it, you’re stuck with the terms so you want to make sure you’re not opening yourself up to get screwed over.

If you need additional information about the minimum you need for a valid contract, please check out my video below or here.


If you want to chat about your contract needs, please send me an email or contact a business attorney in your community.

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How To Start a Business in Arizona

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Ribbon Cutting by US Army Corps of Engineers, Carter Law Firm, Ruth Carter

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Ribbon Cutting by US Army Corps of Engineers

This week I had two speaking engagements on the basics of starting a business in Arizona. I thought I’d expand my list of tips into the ideal timeline an entrepreneur should follow for setting up their business.

  1. Figure out what type of business you want to have.
  2. Select a name for your business. From a trademark registration perspective, it’s best to pick a name that contains a word or words that don’t already exist. Also be mindful of any business name restrictions that exist in your industry.
  3. Do a search on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website to see if someone in a similar business has registered a similar name for their business. If they have, they can prevent you from using your desired trade name. Run a Google search as well to see if someone has a similar name but hasn’t registered it with the USPTO.
  4. Create a business entity by sending the appropriate form and payment to the Arizona Corporation Commission.
  5. Open a bank account for your business. Never use your personal accounts for business expenses or your business accounts for personal expenses.
  6. If you have more than one owner, create an operating agreement. This is a contract that dictates how the company is owned, how you will run your business, and how you will resolve problems. You need this no matter who your partners are, including your spouse and family members.
  7. When you have a business, you have intellectual property – at least copyrights and trademarks, and perhaps trade secrets and patentable ideas. Create an intellectual property strategy to protect these things. This is another time when you should at least buy an hour with a lawyer.
  8. Draft contract templates for documents you will regularly use with vendors and customers. Many business owners get contract templates from the internet. This is an acceptable way to start this project, but you should have a lawyer review them to make sure they are legal and address your needs.
  9. Register your trademark with the USPTO.
  10. If you have employees, you will need employment contracts and an employee handbook that includes a social media policy that complies with the National Labor Relations Act.

Ideally, every new business would have a lawyer to help them set up avoid any legal missteps, but many entrepreneurs can’t afford it. There are a lot of things you can do without a lawyer’s help, but you need to be well-informed about what your’e required to do when going into business for yourself and when it’s worth it to pay for a lawyer (like me).

It’s much easier and cheaper in the long run to consult a lawyer a few times when you’re starting your business than to have to hire one to clean up the mess that can result if you do it the wrong way.

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