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The Importance of Contracts

Background

I was recently ripped-off on one of my projects back in January. It’s the first time that this has ever happened to me in the 10+ years that I have either been freelancing or running LunarStudio. Over the years, I’ve worked on over several hundred images and websites, and I’ve never once encountered any unreasonable circumstances which weren’t easily remedied or corrected. With all of my projects, I’ve always been certain to send out a contract unless it was a really trusted client. Without going into too many specific details, this contract basically serves five main purposes:

  1. Outlines what I will deliver.
  2. Outlines what is expected from a client such as plans, elevations, etc.
  3. Protects both the client and myself.
  4. It appears more professional.
  5. Helps me keep track of paperwork.

To summarize what happened, I did work for a company called Advanced Fabrication now called Coffee Shop experts out in California. They also go by the name Coffee Cart Biz. While I’m very reluctant to have actually released any names, I feel that in this rare case it is necessary to prevent other artists from encountering the same issues that I have had. As it stands, they have still refused to pay for my time and services. In no ways would this be considered slander or libel – it is merely stating the facts. I even have it in writing that they refused to pay and the contract to show for it. To add salt to the wound, they went ahead and posted my work on their website without permission (nor payment) which amounts to copyright infringement.

In my contracts, I stipulate that I will work initially from a client’s supplied plans. After that initial round, I allot for a couple rounds of changes thinking that it would be advantageous for future business by keeping the client happy. I also stipulate that plans should be provided which are correct and finalized from the start, that way any potential changes are kept down to a minimum. Well, we started off on the wrong foot here. First, I was sent incorrect plans. When I mentioned this to the client, they told me I was in the wrong (which I wasn’t) and finally when I convinced them that they were incorrect, they ended up telling me to go hunt around for their files. The client also made arbitrary delivery dates such as sending me information on a Friday night, and then expecting changes the following Monday during the week of Christmas. The point in telling you this is to show that they were being quite unreasonable.

Not only did I continue to politely work on their project, but I ended up going above and beyond the outlined rounds of changes. The thought process behind “being accommodating,” is that they promised to have more work in the future. In all, I ended up creating five rounds total, with about 5 views/renderings per round. Each round would take several days on average. The project, which probably should have not run any longer than one week ended up running about a month in total. And they were not just “simple” changes, but often involved complete changes in geometry.

The problem is that I think the client either didn’t care, or they simply “assumed” that changes were easy to make. Anyone that is experienced with the 3D process knows that nothing could be further from the truth. A “simple” change such as a wall color could tack on several hours easily – by the time you make the changes, test process several rounds, and send off the revised image for approval. This can seriously lead to a major time-sink. If you also have other clients, than this could adversely affect the outcome of their artwork as well. Last but not least, it directly impacts our own time-frame for receiving prompt payment. As a 3D artist working with people who are somewhat unfamiliar with the process, I believe it is our obligation to let the client know how their requests for changes can impact our time and that of others. It is simply the responsible and professional thing to do.

Without going into every nit-picky and unreasonable demand (and they were demands), I finally mentioned that this went well beyond my contract and that my fifth round was to be considered a final round. If they needed any other changes, I would gladly make them but those changes would be billable. Advanced Fabrication in turn replied by saying that they refused to pay me unless I made another round of changes for them. Tim Langdon of Advanced Fabrication offered up a meager “$100” for at least one more additional day’s worth of work. That was the last straw which broke the proverbial camel’s back. I felt that their method of holding finances over someone’s head that’s conscientiously gone above and beyond a reasonable amount of work, and tried to provide the best work possible, to be a very crass method of conducting business.

Current Case

I approached two attorneys who both specialized in copyright issues. Both wouldn’t consider the case due to the “trivial” amount involved (a couple thousand in case you need to know.) Attorneys on average bill out around $400 hour. Their advice to me was to take this issue to small claims court which I have done. I have also gathered all of the paperwork which includes a signed contract, all of the emails, as well as printouts of the artwork and screenshots of this company using one of my images without permission.

As for them using my image without permission, I had informed them of copyright infringement and they pulled my image down within a week. According to one attorney, a judge would award compensation based on the amount of damage the infringement may have caused. In this case, a week’s time was probably not enough to warrant significant damages.

Hopefully, I can obtain payment through the small claims judicial system. If this goes through, I can also write the Better Business Bureau of California, it will affect their credit rating and history, and can also be submitted to the Secretary of State and/or Attorney General.

Keep in mind, you don’t necessarily need a written and signed contract to conduct business. Word of mouth is just as admissible in the court of law, however the burden of proof becomes more difficult. It is better to play it safe than sorry.

Lessons Learned

We often learn from our mistakes, and in this case there are several things which could have been done differently and some things I’m glad that I didn’t change.

  1. Always have a contract. It might take a half hour tops to create, but it’s well worth having the documentation handy for reference. In this rare instance, this will benefit me.
  2. Do not allow for “free” rounds of changes. There should only be an initial preview round to make sure that your scene and model is correct. The client needs to provide you with finalized plans from the beginning. If they can’t provide solid plans, then you will need to wait.
  3. If you feel something is minor and you want to provide free changes, you can do so at your discretion. But at least you will have it in concrete writing that you didn’t allow for any changes without billing extra. This way you avoid spending extra days worth of time and working with what I like to call the “maybe factor.”
  4. Mistakes on your behalf should always be corrected free of charge. After all, you made them.
  5. List your change rates in your contracts, and make certain your client is well aware of this rate.
  6. If changes are asked, itemize those changes and provide the client with an estimate as to how long you think their changes will take. Wait until they sign off on them.
  7. Always point out all of the free and additional work you have done on a project. If you don’t inform them of your changes done out of courtesy, don’t expect them to automatically realize it.
  8. Always take it with a grain of salt when a client holds a “carrot over your head.” Just about every single person I speak with almost always mentions that they probably will have future opportunities. This is something you should automatically assume – after all, if you did a great job to begin with, then why wouldn’t they come back to you? It’s just another way of saying, “can you give me something relatively inexpensive, and I’ll feed you more work down the road?” You realize shouldn’t compromise here. If it’s a project that you really want to work on are interested in – there are some exceptions but the exceptions shouldn’t be the rule.
  9. Take screen shots.
  10. Save emails.
  11. Save contracts.
  12. Analyze their work as well. In this case, if I looked more closely at their previous renderings, I would have noticed a variety of 3D rendering styles. If I had paid more attention, this would have raised an initial flag of concern.
  13. You should watermark your images and don’t remove the watermark until you received payment. This must be spelled out clearly in your contracts.

You have to really look at our artistic profession from the perspective of any other professional industry. For example, if you were to hire a painter to paint your house, you would select a color and have them paint it. However, after they had painted it and you decided that you didn’t like it, it would be ridiculous and unethical to tell the painter to redo the paint in a different color and expect it to be free of charge – even if you were “promised” more work down the road.

You can pretty much take any other industry as an example. If you took your car to a mechanic and asked them to change your oil, you wouldn’t expect them to replace your brake pads for free. It’s simply a ludicrous thought. You would need to pay them for the extra time, expertise/labor, and parts involved.It’s only fair.

In the same respect, we should all handle our artwork and value our time and efforts equally. Anyone that’s being cheap about these matters is probably not worth conducting business with. Not charging for changes is really doing a disservice to the industry as a whole and it only serves to make the rest of us look unprofessional.