Back when I was young and naive, I decided to rent a room in my friend’s house. She gave me the lease to sign right after I’d gotten off a 12-hour shift, so I didn’t read it thoroughly before signing.
I looked at it later only to find it had some unsavory provisions, such as requiring me to pay 75 percent of the costs of any upgrades she wanted to make to the house. Long story short, I ended up breaking the lease — and I learned a valuable lesson about reading contracts thoroughly.
Now, as a full-time freelancer, I never work without a contract. It’s not that I don’t trust anyone — although I gotta say, being screwed over by a friend makes me a little wary. I worked without a contract exactly once, and lo and behold, I did hours of work for zero pay.
As I learned from my “friend,” a bad contract is worse than no contract. So while you may be working under a contract, it’s important to know exactly what’s protected — and what to watch out for.
Without further ado, here is what to avoid in a creative contract.
Lack of late-fee provision
It’s a sad fact of the universe: if you don’t incentivize someone to pay on time, they won’t do it. Many people don’t even look at the due date on an invoice. I read a story on Clients From Hell about a freelancer who gently reminded a client about a past-due invoice. The client responded, “Well geez, if I’d known you were living on bread and water, I would have paid you sooner.”
That’s why it’s important to include a late-fee provision in your contract. Some people will make up strange reasons why they don’t have to pay on time. They figure you have a contract, so they can just pay you when they get around to it, right? Businesses charge late fees when people don’t pay bills on time. You’re running a business: charge late fees!
Some businesses will hand freelancers contracts that basically forbid them from working for competitors. Depending on the industry and the language used in the contract, that could be both unenforceable and unethical. The whole point of being a freelancer is that you have the freedom and flexibility to work with a variety of clients. If you’re stuck working for just one, you’re basically an employee with no benefits or job security. That’s exactly what they want. Don’t fall for it. Just say no to non-compete clauses.
Lack of scope of work definition
We’ve all been there: (1) Client hires you for tiny project. (2) Client loves your work and wants you to do Just One More Thing for them. (3) You’re devoting way more hours than you planned for this project and being paid the same amount.
I won’t say that all cases of scope creep are deliberate, but it does raise the question when clients start testing the limits of what you’ll do for them. That’s why it’s crucial to define the scope of work in the contract. Be as specific as possible when describing the number of pages, words, templates, whatever you’re delivering. You can always amend the contract or start a new one if the client wants more work from you.
It’s all-too-common in the performing arts world: artists are booked by unscrupulous producers only to find that they have to pay a fee to perform (or perform free labor by selling tickets, posting flyers for the events, etc.) While it’s not unreasonable to ask performers to promote the event, any provision that requires money or labor from performers is “pay-to-play” — and it’s predatory and unethical. You should never feel like you have to pay money for the privilege of selling your creativity. After all, you invest enough money in your craft without a producer getting cash or free work out of you.
Lack of project cancellation policy
It’s happened to the best of us: you book a new client, everything seems good to go, and suddenly they ghost you. Or they contact you to say that they can no longer afford the project/it’s been called off/they’ll be relocating to a remote desert island. Whatever the reason, you might not be able to afford the loss of a project, especially if you already put time and effort into it. Your contract should always outline the terms under which a project can be canceled. Otherwise, you leave the door open for clients to get partial work out of you, then say “never mind” and run out the door. You’ll also enable “tire kickers” who just want to shop around for services and waste freelancers’ time. Your cancellation policy should include a “kill fee,” partial payment options for work that’s been partially completed, and the procedure for mutually canceling the project.
A good creative contract includes protections for both the freelancer/artist and the client/producer. No matter which party drafts the contract, it’s important to keep things fair for both parties. My former friend wanted to upgrade her entire house on the dime of someone who rented a room from her — that’s a clear example of a one-sided contract. The more details and protections you include, the less likely the project is to get out of hand and the more likely you are to get compensated for your work. When in doubt, consult a lawyer for the exact language you need for your unique situation.