Information concerning general artwork.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

I decided late last week to revise a website that I had lying around for some time and more or less finished it today. Years ago, I had created LunarLog to be the LunarStudio blog. Instead of blogging on-topic, I found myself over time writing miscellaneous pieces and posts. I decided that I needed a new blog, MightyFunk to handle some of my more off-color topics. But with main architectural rendering business running the show, I didn’t have much time to jump from work to blog to blog. MightyFunk was mostly just standing still without any new content. Keeping in touch with my friends via Facebook in some ways put the proverbial “final nail in the coffin.”

This complete website revision will hopefully bring new life to an older stagnant blog without completely alienating my previous audience. I’m really excited because MightyFunk now serves design-related news excerpts from some of the best design-related websites and blogs I could find on the Internet. I wanted my own comprehensive place instead of a RSS reader that I could go visit, and quickly skim the headlines for new, interesting design-related articles. I felt that sharing my own personal list (which numbers close to a hundred) would be beneficial to the entire community.

My new aggregator is working  much better than expected. I kept the overall website design simple because I wanted it to be primarily a news source for readers, and didn’t want flashy graphics and backgrounds to interrupt their reading. Instead, the articles would do most of the talking for them.

I think it’s a win-win situation for all the websites involved. A common misconception is that Google penalizes websites for duplicate content from a spam perspective. It actually doesn’t. In fact, having these excerpts on MightyFunk lead back to the original author websites helps promote their work, adds a significant amount of backlinks which can improve search engine rankings, increases their readership, and can also lead to increased revenue (if that’s part of their goal.)

From a technological perspective, the website is very plain. All the text and images are pulled from RSS feeds which can be found throughout the web. The images themselves are off-loaded onto a Content Delivery Network (CDN) so that traffic spikes will not impact the original author websites. Plus the CDN (I’m currently using MaxCDN) also works to help spread the loads throughout the country which ends up speeding up the website which Google has hinted at improving search engine results.

My main concern right now is to prevent duplicate feeds coming into MightyFunk. I’ve set up some macros and cron jobs to help eliminate these duplicate posts, but a few always manage to still get through. While I’m not (nor anyone else) is going to get penalized for these duplicate excerpts, it still remains somewhat unsightly from a readership perspective. I think I have it currently set up to remove duplicate feeds every 1/2 hour and it will need to be tweaked more over time. On the other hand, it would be even better if someone could come up with a plugin which would filter out duplicates even before they went to post. If I was capable of writing such a thing, I would.

Last but not least, I hope that posting 50 excerpts per page is a reasonable figure for most people. Because the list is fairly large, I didn’t want people to have to jump from page to page constantly. Most of us are on decent Internet connections. I’m privileged with a 50 mb/s stream here so the load time is minimal, which makes my testing page load-time more difficult for others.

If you have any comments or advice regarding the new MightyFunk Design News website, I’d be happy to hear from you. As always, links back are always greatly appreciated.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

Chinese Futuristic Rendering

We can’t stop fantasizing about living in an urban utopia: some try to give their fantasies a realistic foundation, to ground them in the brick and mortar of today… while others have the architectural visions of the World Of Tomorrow that are more … well, visionary.

If not totally hallucinatory. Read and See More From Dark Roasted Blend.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.
3D World Magazine

3D World Magazine March 2010 Issue.

I would like to proudly announce that the March 2010 issue of 3D World magazine will feature free sIBL sets from my HDRSource HDR and sIBL libraries. These sets are free for commercial use to people who purchase this issue. Along with my sets, several other sIBL library photographers and developers will also be releasing some of their work as well. It’s quite literally hundreds of dollars worth of free work packed into a supplemental DVD.* The US release of this issue will follow a month later in April.

Judging by the cover posted above, the issue itself looks fantastic and I can’t wait until I’m able to get my hands on it. It contains articles on modeling techniques, color theory, linear workflow, free models, a 3D article regarding the iPhone, and much much more. I find all of those topics to be very interesting – in particular color theory, their take on LWF, and creating 3D for the iPhone.

The authors of these sIBL libraries and sets include:

I would like to add that these fellow artists and authors have been wonderful to work with. I have had the wonderful opportunity to speak with several of them over the last few months. They have been very kind and very helpful and are truly an inspiration. If you have a moment, please feel free to visit their websites and check out their amazing work.

*Please note that not all of the 3D World March issues will contain this DVD.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

Introduction

Unless you’re intent on living on the streets, working side jobs, or are fortunate to have the support of wealthy parents and benefactors, most of us at one point or another have to ask ourselves – “what prices should I charge?” Pricing out and valuing your work is a great mystery.  If you look around the Internet and even ask others for advice, the amount of money – especially for artists, ranges a very wide gamut. The price point is very difficult to gauge with so many people out there. Of course to some degree, what you can charge is indicative of your skill level, but for the sake of this article I’m just going to discuss what an average businessman, freelancer, artist, and even photographer should be charging at the very minimum.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to use my experience as a freelancer for close to the past 10 years and running my company, LunarStudio. The same experience should apply to most people in a variety of different situations.

The Internet – The Global Price Mediator

At one point before the Internet grew in size and popularity, if you wanted a television, you would drive around town to various electronics store. The price would have probably remained relatively fixed. If you drove to a competitor in the same neighborhood, you might have found several hundreds of dollars in savings. If you drove even further – perhaps to another state – the price may have gone down or up several hundred instead. There really was no baseline comparison from place to place. Prices were more or less regulated to the availability and general income of where you lived.

Enter the shopping world of the Internet. No longer were people confined to the neighborhood electronics store. If you saw a television you liked at a physical location/store, you could come back home and do a search for that same TV online. In the Internet’s infancy, you could discover huge savings on the same exact product, perhaps even including free shipping and no taxes. Suddenly, you were aware that there were great deals to be had online. You saw what one company was charging at one location, and what another was charging in a completely different part of the country. This is comparison shopping on a larger, more instantaneous and convenient level.

The Internet had the effect of exposing exorbitantly high prices in one area, and showing “rock bottom” prices in another. Over time, the highs and the lows across the country evened out to a degree. Your local store started to honor TV deals that you could find out on the Internet. The boundaries originally set by a lack of information and geography started to evaporate. The Internet became the great price mediator.

Now you may be asking yourself, how exactly does this apply to your business? The same analogy applies to many of your services. As prices of goods around the country start to level off, the highs and lows of what you can charge has also been affected. Everything including average income and salary starts to average out.  In some parts of the country, there are still higher costs of living and major differences in salary, but these differences are going to eventually follow suit.

Let’s take for example two digital artists that work remotely off of the Internet. One is out in farm country – somewhere out in Oklahoma. We’ll call him “Artist A.Artist A has a very low cost of living. He pay $500/month in rent. Most of his bills tends to be relatively inexpensive for him.

Now let’s take “Artist B.Artist B lives in the heart of New York City. His rent is $2,000/month. The costs of living are generally much higher for him.

Let’s suppose that both of these artists produce a similar quality of work. Guess who has to charge more in order to keep up their living expenses? Artist B.

Unfortunately, Artist A can easily undercut the more expensive Artist B. On the other hand, is Artist A really doing himself any favors by drastically undercutting the more expensive Artist B? In the short-term, yes. It costs a lot less for Artist A to stay alive. But guess what – the prices of the TVs they were looking at earlier still remains the same now. Artist A in effect has to work harder to afford that television because he’s charging much less. Artist B also has to get more jobs in the door (because he’s charging higher prices) in order to compete with Artist A in order to buy that television. Both artists have made more work for themselves simply because more competition has entered the field via the Internet.

So what is the solution to this problem then? You can choose to wait out the “great Internet mediation” – as to how long that will take is anyone’s guess. We all have to wait irregardless. You could also try producing substantially better work and charge more, but there will always be people who don’t recognize better quality and simply go for the lowest prices. You could also perform lower quality work, and at that point it becomes a numbers game as to how many clients you can shove through any given door before they realize they’re getting substandard work. In essence, you’re still making the same amount of work. If you want quality – then you have to pay for it.

What the average person has to do (assuming that your skills are average in nature) is to find the middle ground – a happy medium. A price point which isn’t “too high” and not “too low.” As your skills progress, you should be able to charge more over time as your services come into greater demand.

The point is that you’re not doing anyone any favors by undercutting your fellow artist (or businessman) in the age of the Internet. In fact, you may be doing more harm than good. Ultimately, you need to provide a quality product with a quality service, and hope that makes all the difference. In a perfect world, we would all be charging similar prices, and only those that charge higher are producing better quality.

Comparing Others

So you have looked around the Internet and checked to see what other competitors and colleagues are charging. You have one relatively unknown person in the middle of nowhere trying to charge $25 for a photograph. On the other hand, you see another person with a little bit of better work charging $250. Which price should you charge? Perhaps like most people, you consider yourself an “unknown” too and are just starting out or trying to make ends meet. The first inclination may be to charge on the lower end of the spectrum – $25. But are you selling yourself short? Perhaps if you charge closer to $250, others will see your work as “more professional” or “more valuable.” It’s a tricky question with a seemingly tricky answer.

In order to answer this question, we can look at other various industries for a baseline number.

Take for example a plumber or an electrician. They can easily charge $100-$150/hour. If your electricity goes out or your toilet stops working – you have no real alternative aside from trying to fix it yourself. You’re more or less forced to pay those prices. However, there’s a reason why you pay them these rates. Even at those prices, I don’t see many plumbers and electricians living in mansions. The standard of living factoring in risk and reward (for running your own business) all averages out.

How about professional photographers? They’ll bill out $1,500-$2,500 a day. What is not apparent to the average person/onlooker is that they’ll spend a few days prior negotiating with potential clients, a few days in post process after a shoot, and a few days cleaning up all of their previous negotiations.

As for architects, how much do you suppose their companies bill out on a hourly basis? The average is around $125/hour. The principals? They can push $200/hour.

Now let’s take a look at my architectural illustration work. Running my company (artwork creation, 3D knowledge, self-education, marketing, invoicing, sales, etc.) is more complicated than any other job I’ve personally ever seen and requires multiple skill sets. What do you think I should be charging if I spend an hour’s worth of work on something?

You may say to yourself, “well, art isn’t a necessity.” However in my field, I argue that it is. My illustration work helps sell multimillion dollar buildings based on ideas and blueprints. If someone is planning to put up a $50 million dollar building and it all hinges on a pretty picture, do you think it’s worth spending $10,000 or more? It sure is. My work gets ordinances passed by town boards. It communicates to designers what something will look like even before it goes to manufacturing. And it helps fill spaces quickly. That’s a very useful service to people and companies.

So I’ll ask the question again – what do you think I should be charging? My work is more complicated than average and it is very useful. I know from personal experience that I’ve spent almost 10 years, working and studying 16 hour days, almost 7 days a week with no vacation doing this. Shouldn’t I gain some level of reward on top of all the energy and extra efforts I’ve put into my craft?

I’ll make the same point as I did in the previous section. You’re not doing yourself any favors by charging low. That only works for the short-term. The same applies for charging high unless you’re determined to produce a better quality and provide a better service. You need to find that middle ground.

Cost of Living Breakdown

Now that I’ve more or less made my argument that geographical location is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s digital age, let’s assume that you’re an average professional artist living in a city all by your lonesome in an apartment. You’re single with no children. All you do is freelance for work. This “should” be the most common situation. Let’s tally up your expenses:

  1. Rent: $1,500/month or $18,000/year.
  2. Electricity: $250/month or $3,000/year.
  3. Heating (assuming it’s efficient): $250/month or $3,000/year.
  4. High-Speed Internet/Digital Voice/Television (hey, it’s bundled): $200/month or $2,400/year.
  5. Cell Phone with data access (most people have them): $80/month or $960/year.
  6. Car loan or finance: $300/month or $3,600/year.
  7. Groceries (we all have to eat): $200/month or $2,400/year.

TOTAL: $33,360/year.

This means that you have to make at least $33,360/year in order to just pay your bills. I’m not even factoring in credit cards, health insurance, and miscellaneous equipment expenses – that could easily add another $8,500 to that total. So let’s add in those items:

  1. Health Insurance (average Massachusetts plan): $300/month or $3,600 year.
  2. Credit card (you ran into trouble and have to pay it off monthly): $150/month or $1,800/year.
  3. Misc. equipment expenses (ie. a high end computer for graphics, software, repairs, .etc): $2,500/year
  4. Previous total: $33,360/year.

REVISED TOTAL #1: $41,260/year.

So we’re up to a little over$40,000/year. That’s not including 1/3 business taxes, 10%/annually in retirement savings, savings for your potential kid’s college education, and savings for a nice down-payment on a home. I like round numbers and I’m going to jump a few more steps to include these items.

REVISED TOTAL #2: $60,000/year.

That’s right. You need to make $60,000/year just to survive in a city by yourself. How do most people do it? They manage, but they often struggle to just keep their heads above water. It also general requires a dual income either through having roommates or through marriage. Add to this economic uncertainty such as the global depression in 2009, and you’re sitting on the edge. Here are some statistics as to the average income and salary within the United States.

I’m not trying to scare anyone here, but rather I’m pointing out that you should at the very minimum be targeting $60,000 year in 2010 just to earn a living.

How Much to Charge

Let’s say that we agree on $60,000/year as a target figure. How much does that mean we need to make per week at a minimum? Let’s say that you work 50 weeks out of the whole year. That breaks down to $1,200/week or roughly $4,800. Again, I like round numbers so you need to earn $5,000/month.

Let’s say that you’re an artist and you’re lucky to get two jobs per month that take a week per job. Each job would need to cost $2,500 in order to meet your target goal of $60,000/year.

Assuming (and this is a big assumption) that all of your marketing duckies are lined-up in a row and that you can manage to pull four jobs per month, then maybe you can charge $1,250/per job at the very minimum. At that minimum price point, you are really risking your own livelihood and future. Truthfully, you can’t just risk staying at the baseline, but should instead be focusing on getting ahead.

So. how much should a person charge? Realistically, you may only get two jobs per month – if that. Most artists don’t. Either you’ll need to seriously improve your marketing strategies and obtain more jobs, or fit the average quantity of jobs you receive per year into that $5,000 month target.

Guess how much most professional rendering artists at the top of their game charge per image? $4,000 on up. I’ve heard of figures on the order of $12,000 per image for the very best. They may spend half a month working on a single image, but that may be the only image they get. If they receive two or more, then they’re often happy. The next month they may have none. You’re doing yourself and others no favors by low-balling one another. All it does to serve in the long-run is lower the overall quality of work involved.

I’ve also heard of some well-known 3D studios charging around $10,000 per image. Is it highway robbery? Absolutely not. They’re simply trying to meet their overhead in a rapidly changing economy.

You may be saying to yourself, “haha, I don’t live in a city so I don’t need to charge nearly that freelancing amount” or “I’m married so that doesn’t apply.” I have news for you – pull your head out of your ass. We are living in a digital age now. Those boundaries and rules do not apply. It’s also a matter of time before the playing field is more or less leveled. There’s no reason why any of us should become complacent to simply struggle and “get by” on keeping that car of your running on fumes. If you value your work and hard-earned efforts, than that value has a minimum price tag you should try to meet. You need to change your mind-set. $2,500 per image at the very least is a good target goal when starting out on your own. It’s not always realistically possible, but you should keep that target figure in mind. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you should be targeting over $4,000 per image in your mind. The more you value your work to be that figure, the more it will actually become to be worth that amount. Don’t sell yourself short.

Taking Your Practice One Step Further – Getting Ahead

So now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that you may be charging too little, I’d like to point out another angle. Pretend for a moment that you are an actual business with an employee. Not only are you taking your original figure of $60,000 that you had to make, but you also have to insure their salary over the course of the year. That figure alone could easily run $50,000 (or more) in a very technical field. You also wouldn’t simply want a helping hand – you deserve to make a profit for the additional risk and responsibilities you’re putting upon yourself. So you’ve basically more than doubled the amount of work you must do and charge in order to keep your head floating above water.

The artist needs to stop thinking of “me, me, and me.” Unless you have an extraordinary gimmick, luck, or style – that “fame” you might be seeking will often prove elusive. You need to take your ego out of the mindset of being the lone artist. Pretend for a second that you are a full-fledged company. Whatever charges you proposed in the previous section starts to quickly look small. Not only are you targeting that $4,000 mark, but you have to set your sights even higher than that.

Summary

I have many reasons why I wrote this article. In particular, I’ve seen many artists ask themselves over the years, “how much should I charge?” I’ve seen many crazy answers. I also speak from personal experience. When a little more than half of all small businesses fail within the first five years, I consider LunarStudio to be a success in that department. By helping fellow artists and businesses alike through healthy discussion about this topic, in turn I hope to raise my own standards and rates. If we all work together (and stick together) to help determine the lowest common single denominator any single one of us can charge, then we can prevent drastically undercutting one another which often leads to more harm than good. Artists and freelancers alike need to start valuing their work, time, and efforts and stop selling themselves short. As much as I don’t like thinking of our artwork “as a business” from a philosophical perspective, being a “professional artist” entails that we carry ourselves in a professional and respective manner.

3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

Introduction

First, I have to state that I am not an attorney. Anything you read here is not to be considered legal advice as I am only speaking from my own personal experience. I cannot say that this article would even apply to other countries, let alone individual states within the U.S. I hope that this article can provide you with some ideas as to options you can take in case you ever encounter a similar situation of non-payment or refusal to pay.

I’ve been a member of various art-related forums for over eight years now. I’ve seen other fellow artists post on bulletin boards and forums over and over again that they occasionally run into issues of non-payment from their clients. For the most part, if you’re an employee of a company – you generally don’t have much to worry about as the letter of the law is very strict when it comes to employers. However, if you are a freelancer, contractor, or sole-proprietor, than this article may be of use to you as you are technically all on your own. I never expected this to happen to me in all of the years working, but unfortunately it did.

I feel that it is necessary for me to write about this incident. Artists as a whole are very vulnerable to injustice. A simple comparison might be:

If you were to walk into an electronics store such as Best Buy, grab a small television, and walk out without paying for it – you’d probably get arrested. However, if create an image for somebody and they accept it via email without paying, do you think they would get arrested? Absolutely not.

This is just one small example of what artists have to face when it comes to the digital age of instant communication. We are not attorneys, and we often look to each other in our forums in order to determine what, if any, appropriate steps fellow artists can take in-case we are clearly taken advantage of. Believe it or not, this happens quite frequently – I suppose I’ve just been lucky up until now.

Background

I recently encountered my first situation of a refusal to pay back in January of 2010. This is the first time in over eight years of working with some very large and at times, famous clients (The Federal Reserve, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Pepsi, Coca Cola – so on and so forth) that I’ve ever encountered this problem. My contracts are fairly “iron-clad” and I thought nobody would ever try to argue it. I never expected this to happen. I didn’t think another company would conduct themselves so unprofessionally as to jeopardize their own business. I was completely wrong and left dumbfounded by their actions.

I was contracted to create 3D renderings for Coffee Cart Biz (also doing business under the name of Advanced Fabrication.) The intent was for them to sell their coffee shop manufacturing and instructional services to their clients by partially using my artwork to show clients a “vision” of their products before it was actually built. As per written and signed contract, I met my obligations to them and actually went over and beyond my obligations to try to help them out – an estimated two weeks of free work to be exact. As their demands for changes became abusive, I informed them that they went over the contract allowance and that I would cease work until I received payment for the work completed. The owner of Coffee Cart Biz, Tim wrote back demanding even further changes. He offered up an unacceptable $100 for an extra days worth of work (which he incorrectly assumed to only take two hours – perhaps in his own little world but he’s not a 3D artist…):

“Make the changes and get paid or don’t and continue to send unprofessional e-mails and you will not be paid because the project is not complete. As of right now with your last e-mail two things are certain, you will not get paid without these corrections and you lost a customer with a pipeline of upcoming business with no intention from you of making things right.”

I realized at this point that this client was being unreasonable and there was a high probability that I wasn’t going to receive payment. I wasn’t about to be “bullied” or “threatened” into performing additional free work for this company. I had my limits as well as obligations to other clients to meet. So, that was the situation surrounding my case. I could get into all the mechanics of my contract and our emails, but for the sake of brevity I’ll spare the reader all of the details (5 pages of contract and legalese to be precise.)

Analogy

I’d like to bring up an analogy here:

Let’s say you are a professional painter that works on home exteriors. Someone approaches you and asks for you to paint their home a certain color. You agree on a price and time and set about painting their house. A week later, the owner takes a look at the home and decides he doesn’t like the color. He mentions that he has additional work for you later on, but wants the color changed for now. So out of courtesy, you paint the house all over again the new colors he selected. Now he comes back and starts demanding changes three more times – complaining about the reflections, the gloss, the tint when dried, etc.At a certain point, you stop and say, “woah, wait a minute. This is taking a lot of unreasonable time now. I need to get paid because this has gone way over our time or we can rework our agreement.”

Now how many times do you think is enough? Most painters wouldn’t even change the first round for free. On the other hand, I offered two rounds of changes out of courtesy beforehand. But to be asked five times in total and threatened to be withheld payment is completely unacceptable.

Mind you, all of these requests are documented in archived emails (30+ pages – average of 2 emails per page to be exact) and proven by the test renderings I produced.

Actions to Take

With all the facts and emails in place, I had a few options:

  1. Write an email or place a phone call and explain what you intend to do as a result of their refusal. Point to your contract. This may include hiring attorneys (expensive), filing to a small claims court (inexpensive), or sending their information off to a collection agency (roughly 1/3rd of the amount owed.) You may also write about what transpired, but you have to be honest and you have to realize any potential legal problems you may run into. Freedom of speech is covered under the US Constitution but be wary at which tone you convey your message. You hope at this point your message gets across and that you and your client would come to some sort of agreement to prevent this from transpiring. If this works out, then this is the best scenario. The client walks away and pays you the amount owed or at least (at the very minimum) partial payment for the services rendered. Both companies cease communications after this point.
  2. File in small claims court. This is one of the most inexpensive options for coming to a resolution if the first method doesn’t work. Keep in mind that there are limits which vary from state to state. In Massachusetts, the limits for small claims court judgments is $2,000 maximum except under certain specific conditions. In California, the last I checked it was $5,000 maximum. Filing costs in Massachusetts is $40 for under $500, and $50 for $500-$2,000. You need to just show up to the court’s small claim office and fill out a piece of paper with your name and address as well as that of the defendants. You write the office a check, and within 10 days they deliver a certified letter to the defendants doorstep.
  3. After filing in small claims, then try to mediate by attempting to use your filing as leverage to make your case.
  4. File in a higher court. Chances are that you will need to hire an attorney which is going to be fairly expensive ($400/hour.) You may be able to get an attorney that works on contingency or on a pro bono basis, but that is rather unlikely. It’s only really worth it if the amount and damages owed exceed a substantial sum of money. Any additional fees incurred by the attorneys (assuming that you win) can be made billable to the defendant. Obviously, in the case of something that’s only worth $1,000-$2,000 (even up to $5,000), then hiring an attorney is probably not justified.
  5. Hire a collections agency. Obviously, there’s probably a chance that if it got this far in the first place, then you would never ever want to work for that type of person or company again. You could hire a collections agency off of the web to basically hunt down the money owed. They do this type of work for a living. They’re cold and hard people that know how to argue their way to get the desired results. This also comes at a cost or roughly 30% for some places. You have to weigh the positive and negatives. Is spending 30% better than receiving nothing at all?

I immediately picked up the phone and tried calling. No response. I also shot over an email outlining some of my intentions with the hopes of coming to a conclusion. It probably wasn’t the best phrased – I was rather upset at the time. But that still doesn’t change any facts. He replied:

If I see an attachment I will open up your next e-mail, otherwise I will save them in your folder without reading for an attorney to review.

Again, he is trying the bullying tactic. He wants an additional round of changes on top of the free ones already provided. It was becoming increasingly obvious that he wasn’t willing to mediate, but at least I tried.

I eventual talked with four different attorneys. One was a friend and she helped me out with a little bit of email correspondence. We hadn’t talked in a long time, and I didn’t want to take bother her much with the details. She kindly some of the methods of approaching the court in small claims. The other three attorneys happened after my filing, and I’ll discuss that in a little bit.

The next step was to file for small claims. After filing, I followed it up by writing him again and CCing his employee (from a different email address so that it didn’t get trashed) with an email stating what I had done. I was giving him one last opportunity to mediate before trial. As typical, there was no response.

Assembling the Offense

During the next few days, I spent time to collect all of the emails and written correspondences we had. I established a time-frame in which the events had folded as well as making sure to document all the prior requests for changes. I also printed out all of the artwork which I had done including their stages (close to 25 pieces in total.) I also outlined the inconvenience he caused in order to receive damages for time lost. The more evidence I had, the better my case. Unfortunately with small claims, it is a very quick process so you have to condense all the major points in your argument down to a few pages. Don’t expect the judge to read 30 pages of email, but it is best to have them handy just in case.

Catching Them Red-Handed – Copyright Infringement

The court appearance was to happen a month later to this very day of writing. In the meantime, I decided to visit their website to see if they had posted any of my images. They did.

Now, you can’t just take someone’s artwork and post it to your website without paying – that’s actually copyright infringement – a form of theft. In most typical situations with a good client, I wouldn’t have minded at all if they did that. But the situation was far from typical. It also invalidates any claim that the defendant might have in stating that he “didn’t like” or “didn’t approve of the results.”

I took a screenshot and also had one of my friends take one as backup evidence in case that came into question.

The copyright infringement, while-related, is a completely separate offense. It’s one thing to have someone not pay you. It’s totally another to have someone steal from you on top of it all.

It doesn’t only have to be posting your work without permission – if the client uses your image in the interim to help “sell” his idea on a $50 million dollar building (and in some cases several billion) without paying, you should and would rightfully be entitled to a portion of those damages.

As time was of the essence, I marched straight down to an attorney around the corner from me. I wanted my screen capture of his website to be notarized.  I described my situation and he said that as I had the screenshot, then the notarization wasn’t necessary (I think this is debatable.) He also put me in touch with his brother out in California who happened to specialize in copyright infringement and trademark issues.

I headed home and in another email using a different email address, I sent a short letter off to the defendant informing them of their infringement.

The Copyright Attorneys

Almost two weeks later, my image was pulled down from their website. I got into touch with two attorneys that specialized in copyright issues. One worked on a pro bono basis. He basically said that copyright damages are awarded based on how much damage the court thinks the offender has done. In this case, the cost of my images were deemed minimal. The attorney said that unless it was a very large client, that it probably wasn’t worth his while as he would normally bill out $400/hour for his services and that the image itself cost far less than that. If they also agreed to pull down the image in a short amount of time, then any reward for damages would be small. He recommended small claims court.

The second attorney who was the brother of the very first guy I met more or less said the same thing. He recommended small claims as well. His first step in this situation would have been to ask for the image to be removed from their website which they had already done. I brought up the other case of non-payment to him, and he said that it probably wasn’t worth any attorney’s time as the costs would exceed the benefits.

In our conversation, I brought up the point that I didn’t think this was going to send any message regardless. Even if the defendant ends up paying maximum damages in the court, it’s such a small amount that this wouldn’t even probably give him pause for further reflection. The attorney brought up a few more additional points.

Going Beyond Small Claims Court

If you are rewarded the judgment, there’s a few more options you have at your disposal. The court will make their ruling public in association with the docket number you were originally provided. At this point, you should be able to (again, I am not an attorney so follow this writing at your own risk – these are not recommendations…):

  1. Submit the ruling to the Better Business Bureau for the state the defendant resides in. The BBB doesn’t want to get involved in financial disputes between two parties, however if you have a ruling than all is said and done.
  2. Contact the Secretary of State that the defendant resides in and present your ruling.
  3. Inform the bank officers of the ruling. This information can be trickier to find out, and may require a court request for a writ of execution to be served up by a constable.
  4. Contact one of the three major credit reporting bureaus – Experian, Transunion, and Equifax. A mark on someone’s record should make things such as obtaining loans and even conducting business a bit more difficult. Information can be found throughout the Internet about this process. Here is one link that partially explains this option.
  5. You can write about the incident. Be truthful. This falls under the First AmendmentFreedom of Speech. Be very cautious to make sure this doesn’t fall under the grounds of libel and defamation although that is often very difficult to prove. The definition varies from country to country and state to state.

My Day in Court

I was to appear almost a month later from the time of filing in front of the judge. This was scheduled for 8:30 in the morning. It’s best to show up early. This is one date you do not want to miss. If you do miss it, the defendant can be awarded the case and vice-versa. In my situation, the defendant was located in California. Special rules apply as they are considered to be “out of state.” A letter had been delivered to his doorsteps with the option to make a written statement if he couldn’t attend the hearing.

He had written a reply, and I was sent a copy of his 3-page letter to the court. Earlier, I had taken the time to dissect his writing, and effectively counter every one of his claims with either my emails or my contract. So I had been prepared to counter every one of his arguments.

I showed up early in the morning, dressed in a suit and tie with all of my materials, portfolio (if asked), and letters of recommendation by my side. I passed through a metal detector and was then shuffled through a general court room with others before a clerk.

At the scheduled time, the clerk starts to read off names. You reply by stating that you are “present” when your case comes up. Probably more than half of the names are “defaulted” due to someone (or even both parties) not showing up – either one party is awarded in this situation, or the case is thrown out. The name calling moves rather fast and the court room quickly thins out.

When my name came up, I said “present.” The clerk told me that the case was defaulted to me, and that I was allowed to leave. However, the clerk had made a mistake. I happened to leave and go downstairs and mentioned this to some people working in the office that this was out of state and that the defendant had written a letter in his absence. I was told to go back upstairs and also present any additional information that I had.

So I went back into the general courtroom and waited as the rest of the names were read off. At the end, the clerk stands to one side of the room, and anyone with questions can approach her. I stood aside and mentioned that the defendant wrote a letter in his absence as he was located out in California. She admitted to making a mistake of announcing the default and took the paperwork off of me. She said the court would probably get back to me within 10 days.

I thought this was over with so I headed back downstairs to finish filling out the separate complaint, this time for copyright infringement. About 5-minutes later, I unexpectedly heard my name mentioned over the intercom and I was told to appear in a separate court room. I scrambled to get back up there. Good thing I didn’t leave because it appears that even the court system doesn’t even have their act always together. That was twice in one morning that I was told erroneous information as to what to do.

I showed up in front of the judge in what seemed to be an informal setting. The best way to describe this was a “cram session.” The judge quickly asked a series of forceful questions and you have to be prepared to answer them with facts backing yourself up. I kept pointing to all of the paperwork he was handed, and he seemed to want to ignore it. In his own words, he quickly (and when I say quick, probably less than 5 minutes) came to a decision that the defendant was lying. He was ready to come to a judgment in my favor. Where my proceeding got held up was in the details – the judge was trying to determine if I was entitled to any extra damages for time lost. He asked if I had anything else to say, and I pointed to the papers once again and said that “it’s all in the paperwork.” The judge looked up at me and replied, “well, it looks like I have some reading to do.” And that was that.

I’m confident that I received a positive judgment for the work I had done. As to any extra damages, I will have to wait about another week before I find out.

The Follow-up

Assuming that nothing “short of freakish” occurs in the interim, I will receive judgment in my favor. As to any extra damages – that is a complete guess at this point. I can’t get inside a judge’s head. At the very least, I should recover payment for the work done as well as my filing fees.

As to whether or not the defendant actually decides to pay or pay promptly is also a best guess. The chances are a little bit better as he is a business owner. I could have additionally obtained (for an additional fee) what the courts call a writ of execution to help make certain that the defendant would follow-up on the judgment by holding some of his assets in check (mind you, this is not a lien on a home – that is costly and usually requires an attorney.) As soon as I receive the final resolution from the court, I will approach the defendant one more time and make it known that I will follow through on items 1-4 of two sections above, entitled “Going Beyond Small Claims Court.” I will also be certain to bring up the topic of copyright infringement as well. If that final email fails to satisfy the judgment in a timely fashion, then I may turn the ruling over to a collections agency.

Moving Forward

I’ve been taught a few important lessons here:

  1. First and foremost, if a potential client is going to be “cheap” with the work requested, then there’s a good chance you don’t want to work with them. If you can avoid it, great.
  2. Do not hand over your images without watermarks on them. You can blend the opacity or screen enough so that the details are still visible. Only remove the watermark upon receipt of payment. It will also make your business operations run a lot more smoothly overall.
  3. Make certain your contracts are very well thought out. If you don’t have one, try to find artist contracts online. You could probably cobble one together to meet most situations. Take the time and make certain that it tries to cover all situations.
  4. Don’t agree to make changes (aside from your own errors) without charging. You can ultimately use your own discretion in this matter (I really don’t recommend this unless it takes a few minutes of your time), but as the saying goes – “you give an inch and they take a mile.” It’s in your best interest to be upfront with your client. You can either build charges for changes into your quote (not recommended), or itemize the costs on an hourly basis afterwards.