Contracts & Releases - Think Before You Sign

As an entertainer, you never know when or from where your next job is coming.  Many involve auditions….and waiting.  So when you are selected for a job, it’s natural to be eager and excited, and hungry.  Once you and the talent seeker finish discussing the details of gig and agree to a fee, you may be told that you just need to sign a release or a contract.  But is it really that simple?
Believe me, I know how much you want to sign whatever you need to sign to get to the work.  You don’t want to be difficult.  We all know that there’s a line of people who want your job, and many of them will be happy to sign anything.  Maybe you’re at the beginning of your career – but you won’t always be.  And the terms that you sign today can haunt you for the rest of your career. 
The client who hires you usually has a high paid legal team that has created agreements designed to protect them, not you.  The client may be a big name.  The terms may be in legalese and hard to understand.  You may receive the agreement in PDF format, a non-verbal message that editing is not welcome.  If you are feeling intimidated by this process, then something is wrong.  If the client acts annoyed, recognize that behavior as the red flag that it is.  Rather than going along, this is the time when you need to stand up for yourself.  Only a desperate person wouldn’t.  And desperate is not appealing.  Listen to your gut and read the fine print.   
I read every contract carefully before I sign it.  If I don’t understand something, I ask my peers in the business, or go to attorney friends and ask them.  I also Google any legal terms that are unfamiliar to me.  Then I pick my battles.  I’m not looking to prove a point, but to protect myself on the issues that really matter.  Here are some areas I consider carefully in reviewing an agreement:
Exclusivity clauses - comparing any future work I am asked to turn down in consideration for the amount I’m being paid today.
Indemnification clauses - Often, an agreement will protect the client against any potential damage or loss you incur as a result of their misuse of your work, image, voice, etc.  Is the protection they are asking you to give them reasonable?  If your career is damaged as a result of working with this client, can you afford to absorb that damage yourself?
Release clauses -  While in college, Vanessa Williams was photographed nude by two photographers.  After she became Miss America, those photos were published in Penthouse.  She probably never thought twice about the release she signed when she took those pictures as a 19 year-old until several years later that created a national scandal for her as Miss America and caused her to lose her title.  Be aware of how your work can be used before you do it. 
Unilateral vs. Bilateral agreements – People who negotiate in good faith should be willing to grant you the same rights they want you to grant them (bilateral).  An agreement that protects one party at the expense of the other (unilateral) is questionable.  So question it!
Think of any legal agreement that you sign as the foundation of your relationship with that client.  If the terms are unreasonable at the beginning of your relationship, they’re probably not going to better later.  It’s your job to establish your boundaries. 
I start by asking questions about why certain terms were included, assuming positive intent.  I listen.  Then I explain my concern, and I ask for reasonable changes to provide us both with equal protection.  Reasonable clients will agree to those changes.  If they won’t, ask yourself why and what that could mean for you. 
On occasion, I have walked away from jobs.  I’m ok with it.  I respect myself and my brand as much as I respect my clients.   No matter how much I want a particular gig, I will not agree to terms that may hurt me in the long-run.  It takes confidence to demand reasonable terms, and it will help the right clients respect you more.  Most importantly, it will protect  your future.

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