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Contracts and Payments: Your Options When You Don’t Have a Signed Contract

by Mark Monlux

Suppose you’ve completed a job for a client, and they refuse to pay you. Worse yet, you never had a written agreement with your client. What options do you have?

  1. Never, ever again, work without a contract. The reasons are long and many but very quickly, it is like trying to build a house without a blueprint. Without a blueprint, anyone is bound to have trouble from the get go. Treat a contract the same way an architect treats a blueprint.
    Use it to define the project and schedules of work and payment. Having a contract in place will solve almost all potential problems you might have with a project because there is a solid game plan in play. Contracts are NOT scary. They are common, everyday things.You sign one when you get the oil changed or when the fridge is repaired. Even a credit card purchase is a basic contract. Question, define, and sign before you begin any project. (Contracts can be found in the Graphic Artists Guilds Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.)
  2. File for copyright immediately. Chances are, if you discounted the merits of a contract, you have discounted the merits of protecting your work by filing for copyright. Again, the reasons for filing for copyright are many and numerous. But first and foremost, it is an affordable measure of protection which is readily available to you. All your work, at all times, should be filed for copyright as part of the project process.
  3. Invoice the client. The main thing here is money. You want to get paid. Send an invoice detailing the work you completed as a service. Then follow up in 30 days (and I do mean within 30 days, not 30 days-ish) with a late payment notice. After 90 days the client should have from you an invoice, a late payment notice and a second late payment notice.The last notice should say that you are going to pursue legal recourse. You have now established for the courts that you have given both adequate and regular notice to the client to have them pay you for your service. Do this via hard copy, snail mail.
  4. File for small claims. (This is a separate article unto itself.)
  5. See if you can reach a settlement. Again, the main thing here is that it is all about the money. You have to get past the “he-said she-said” thing. It is NOT productive.

Going to court is not productive. It takes time from your work schedule (during which you could be earning money), and there will be lawyer fees (more money). You have to reassess your profit margin and be willing to cut a deal.

Odds are that miscommunication got you into this mess and communication will get you out of it. Keep a level and cool head in your discussions and work toward the goal of being paid; NOT proving your point, and you will be one step ahead of the game.

If a client pays you in part or in full, it is an affirmation of your contract. If, as in this case, you do not have a contract, the invoice you have sent them will serve as the contract. (Thus, your invoice should reflect terms of license, i.e.,: quantity, area distributed, time period, etc.) Their payment is an agreement to that contract.

This article was originally published in the Graphic Artists Guild column, Dear Mark.

© 2009 All Dear Mark materials are copyrighted by Mark Monlux, and may not be reproduced in any way without expressed written permission.

DISCLAIMER: To the best of my action or belief the material posted on “Dear Mark” discusses general principles of law in response to issues of concern to the illustration community. Nothing posted by Mark Monlux should be construed to be a substitute for advice of counsel regarding the specific facts and circumstances of an individual case.

Laws and their interpretation differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Legal advice addressing a specific situation should be sought from an attorney duly licensed in the appropriate jurisdiction.