B&N Week 99: Becoming A Better Creator–Contracts

| November 13, 2012

There’s another glorious Tuesday to be had! Sun shining, we have a warming trend here in NC, and we’re also wishing those caught up in Hurricane Sandy a speedy recovery. [Yes, I have family and friends affected by the super-Frankenstorm].

We’re still talking about becoming a better creator, and this week, it’s going to be about contracts: when to use them, when to write one, when to sign one, and how to make the best of them.

Now, I’ll be one to tell you, I’m not much for contracts. It isn’t that I hate them, because I don’t, but most of the time, they aren’t worth the effort put forth into them. But let’s go over some basics that need to be understood in order to make the most out of a contract, and to know when you should pass on one, or ask for modifications of one.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: contracts are there for when things go bad. Are things always going to go bad? Nope. But when they do, they can go really bad. Also, no matter what, having a contract does not mean you will not be sued. Look at the recent Kirkman/Moore case over The Walking Dead. Indie sensation becomes television sensation, and even though there’s a contract in place, one childhood friend sues the other over money.

In the end, that’s what contracts are all about: money. Who is supposed to get it, and how much they are entitled to. Think it’s about IP and who created what and when? Nope. Intellectual properties still boil down to money.

Contracts are there to protect you [or the other party] from giving too much money, plain and simple. Everything else is window dressing.

(Contracts are hard to read! They’re boring, and so technical. Legalese! Who can read that besides lawyers?)

You can. Certain contracts are written in ways that make it confusing and difficult for a reason. Legalese is a deterrent from looking too closely at a contract, and to befuddle you about what you could be giving up.

Contracts are everywhere. If you’re being provided a service or are buying something expensive, you’re either going to be signing a contract, or be provided with one. Cable providers, cell phone companies, cars, insurance of all types, and more they all have you sign a contract that you probably don’t read. Those terms of service that you don’t read? That’s a contract that’s being provided to you, which basically says as long as you don’t violate these terms [and they often list how those terms can be violated], then you will be able to use the service. If you don’t abide by that contract—by those terms—then you will not be able to use the service.

Here’s how to cut through the legalese, and a simple way to understand a contract:

A contract should state who each of the parties involved are, what each party is responsible for, and what each party will get for signing the contract, as well as what happens if the contract is breached, and how to get out of one.

Each and every contract should have those elements. If it doesn’t, look into they why of it.

Another thing to understand about contracts is that, if you didn’t write it, then the contract itself will not be fair to you.

No contract is written by another party with you in mind. The other party isn’t looking out for you. They don’t care about you in that sense. What they’re doing is looking out for themselves, and trying to get the most out of you with the least amount of exposure to themselves. Contracts are a business tool, and should be treated as such.

The last thing to know about a contract is this: every contract you receive is a boilerplate, or standard, for that company or individual. Every single one. This is the same contract that that company or individual gives everyone that works for them. It is not tailored for your needs, only for the company or individual. What you need to do is read it, and see if there are any odious terms in there that could be changed.

In understanding that every contract is a boilerplate, there is also the understanding that these contracts can be negotiated. Negotiation just means change. You’re asking for a change to the contract. Just because you’re offered a contract doesn’t mean you should be too scared to ask for changes. This happens a lot, especially for the first few contracts you sign. You’re so happy you got offered the gig that you’d sign anything. Don’t. Not without a thorough reading and understanding of what it is you’re signing.

When do you need a contract? That depends on you. Some creators, I feel, are overly paranoid, and want a contract for everything. While this is a good practice, because it covers you from the get go on projects, it can also lead to a feeling of you’re nothing but a cog in the machine, especially if it is between two creators. (But what if I have the next Superman on my hands?) That’s always the fear in the back of everyone’s mind. They fear they have the next Superman on their hands, and they want to make sure they’re adequately covered.

Again, only you can determine when you need a contract.

When should you write a contract? Whenever you feel you need one. (I knew you were going to say that.) In writing that contract, though, you have to take a few things into account.

The first thing is knowing what it is you want the contract to do. The second is knowing what it is you’re willing to give up. The third is knowing what is and isn’t negotiable. The last is knowing how valuable the work will be once completed.

Here’s a tip, and some may think it bad advice, but follow my logic: if you feel you need to write a contract, write the worst, most one-sided [yet legal] contract you possibly can. As long as you know what it is you’re wanting, will give up, and isn’t negotiable, then you can get away with a lot. The onus isn’t on you as the writer of the contract, the onus is on the one signing it to read and understand the contract.

If you write a contract that is terribly one-sided, it’s possible you’ll be called out on it. But if you’ve created something that you believe is of value that you want to protect, then you can live with being called out on it. If the creator signs the contract without reading and understanding it, then, sad to say, but they deserve what they get. (WRONG! That’s just terrible and wrong and mean and STEVEN! I can’t believe you said that!)

It’s like this, folks: I’m here to give you the tools to make you as successful as possible. Sometimes, that means slapping you in the face with something that may seem terrible on its face, but is really nothing more than business once you look at it unobjectively. Do you think that Marvel is going to hand you a contract that has your best interests at heart? Have you not been following comic book news for the past few years? Marvel [and DC] only cares about the stewardship of their characters, making sure the properties are lucrative. Who’s still working at these companies that created these characters, or who have given them defining runs in terms of long-term storylines and characterization? Those creators are either resting in peace, working for another company, or retired.

A lot of creators have been the equivalent of being raped and pillaged out of their creations, and generally aren’t seeing much in the way of recompense for their creations. Why? Well, the contracts were written in a different era, and/or they didn’t read them before signing. And bad contracts are the cause for that. Where are Marvel and DC now? Well, you’re still reading their comics, with characters that have probably been created before you were born, aren’t you?

If I can say something wrong that will stop you from being a destitute creator in twenty years, then I’ve done my job. [And I don’t mean to imply that creators from then deserved what they got in terms of getting screwed out of money or their creations. Different eras, as I said. Their lives are teaching the lessons that are informing us now. Today’s creators that don’t heed the lessons of the past? They are the ones who deserve what they get.]

So, you only sign a contract that you have thoroughly read, understood, and are comfortable with. If you aren’t comfortable with it, then you don’t sign it without asking for [and getting] changes that matter to you. Ask for the world, but stand firm on the things that truly matter to you. You may not get them all, but get the ones that truly matter.

Think of it as going into a car dealership. Car salesmen have a stigma of being unscrupulous and for overinflating prices. They generally know that they’re going to be brought down on price. When you go in to buy a car, you know the price you want to pay, but you go for an even lower price, knowing you’re going to be brought up. You’re both looking to find that medium where you’re both a little unhappy.

How do you make the best of a contract? The first thing is you look to make sure it’s something you can live with. If it is, you sign it and continue to march. If it isn’t, you ask for changes. If the changes aren’t made, then you have a decision to make: is the work [read: money/prestige] important enough to make you stay, or do you walk?

Leaving the contract unsigned is always the ultimate bargaining chip, and is not to be used lightly. If you asked for a change, and it’s a deal-breaker, then you have to have the fortitude to walk. If you don’t have the fortitude to leave the deal on the table, then it wasn’t the deal-breaker you thought it was.

As long as things are going well, then you’ll probably never look at the contract again. If things go bad, or if your situation changes, then you’ll be looking at the contract to see what you can do or if you can get out of it.

Want to be a better creator? Then you have to understand contracts. Know your way around them. Seek them out, deconstruct them by looking up words and terms, and see if you’re able to write your own. Don’t forget to know your own mind: what you will and will not accept in the contracts you sign.

It may not be sexy and have the allure of doing actual creating, but you have to understand them in order to make headway in comics.

That’s all I have. See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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