The law, famously, is a thicket. For an independent professional in the creative industries, a contract is typically a document that intimidates and overwhelms. A young freelance artist’s approach to a contract could be described as an unhealthy mix of fear, awe and helplessness.

Artists are bursting with horror stories that are a result of existence in the penumbra of legal protection. Johanna Rodrigues, a 23-year-old breakdancer from Bengaluru, was approached by a choreography company to perform during the cricket team Chennai Super Kings’ matches in last year’s Indian Premier League (IPL). “We (the group of dancers) were given contracts 5 minutes before the start of Chennai’s opening match in Mumbai. We were concerned but they said, ‘Quickly sign it now and don’t stress, we will take care of everything.’"

Over the next few weeks, things rapidly went downhill. The owner and head of the company went missing, leaving his ill-equipped wife in charge. The dancers weren’t provided with proper food and didn’t get adequate rest. Rodrigues’ body broke down because of the stress, but the company did not allow her any time off.

“After a few matches, I couldn’t take it any more—I had to leave. They refused to pay me for the matches I had performed for. I still haven’t been paid, and they have stopped taking my calls. The contract said we would be paid after each performance, but they only gave cheques after five performances. But I can’t afford the time, effort and expense to take this to court. What is sad is that we were not treated like athletes and dancers, but just some people who could do some moves," she says.

The story of unequal bargaining power and delayed payments echoes across creative industries. More often than not, independent artists are left with the shorter end of the stick, simply because of financial exigencies. Pratyush Gupta, a Delhi-based freelance graphic designer, finds that he often ends up exceeding the scope of work originally agreed upon with the client. “I end up making more iterations because the client insists on it. They think they are being very smart and squeezing the last drop of value. But then, after I deliver the final file with the output, they delay payments. And this is the case even with big organizations."

Lawyer Manojna Yeluri,
Lawyer Manojna Yeluri, (Photo: Kumar/Mint)

Legalese to legal ease

Ayesha Kapadia is a Mumbai-based multidisciplinary artist who has had her share of bossy clients. “A lot of the people we work for and with are scared of the C-word (contract). I put together a scrappy PDF that had some terms and conditions," Kapadia says over the phone. “I used to call it a contract but that intimidated people. So then I started calling it a ‘scope of work document’. We aren’t taught all this stuff in design and art school. And, when we are starting out, we can’t approach lawyers because it is too expensive."

In August 2018, she decided something had to be done to “empower the community". She had hit upon the kernel of an idea that would become Contracts For Creators (C4C; @contracts4creators on Instagram)—contract templates for artists and other creative professionals that could be downloaded for free. She spoke to a number of lawyers about putting this together before someone connected her to Manojna Yeluri.

Digital agency founder Mihir Joshi
Digital agency founder Mihir Joshi (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Yeluri was a kindred soul. She was well aware of the struggles of freelance artists though her work with Artistik License, a legal and business consultancy she founded in 2013. Next, Kapadia linked up with Mihir Joshi, who runs the branding and communications agency Dijma.

“It was just the right energy and synergy. We were from different professional backgrounds, so all three of us bought something to the table. We connected instantly," says Yeluri, 32, over the phone. She divides her time between Bengaluru and Hyderabad while Kapadia and Joshi are based in Mumbai. “We do our meetings over video calls—I have not yet met Mihir in person!" adds Yeluri.

In May, the trio was finally ready to launch C4C with two contract templates, one each for designers and musicians. The response took them by surprise. “We had 1,200 followers on Instagram on the day we launched. In the first month itself, we had almost 4,000 downloads."

Kapadia has designed the clutter-free website (Contractsforcreators.com, where templates are available for free download) which Joshi’s firm has developed. “We wanted it to be minimal and edgy, that is what our crowd likes. The contract template is just three-and-a-half pages. We were expecting about 1,500 views a month, but we averaged 3,000-plus in June and July. My IT team has had to allocate more server space to accommodate the traffic," says Joshi.

A fine balance

In a sense, C4C is a step towards demystifying the law and concepts of intellectual property. “I have noticed that artists are always hesitant to approach lawyers. And I don’t blame them because we speak different languages. We are not trained to acknowledge innovation," says Yeluri.

Contract drafts are typically provided by more sophisticated counterparties. The clauses in them are overwhelmingly in favour of the employer or client. Freelance artists, usually scrambling to make ends meet and finalize projects, often sign them without understanding the import of the clauses, many of which waive rights they would ordinarily be entitled to. A common instance is that of moral rights. Moral rights link the artist and the work even after it has left his or her legal ownership—they include the right of proper attribution and the right to not have the work distorted or radically changed without the artist’s permission.

“Our moral rights clause lets the artist know that there is an option to retain it. The templates also provide for reciprocal indemnities. Often, it is just the artist who is required to indemnify the client against damages arising out of a third-party claim or contract breach," says Yeluri.

Nush Lewis, a Mumbai-based musician and educator, hopes this initiative will gain ground in the community. “Something like this will be very useful for young artists who are not represented by management agencies, which is a majority of people in the scene. These templates have accounted for things like cancellation fee (amount owed for work already done in case the project doesn’t go through)."

Lewis says C4C has come at the right time. Increasingly, there are opportunities for independent musicians in the streaming platform space. “For instance, indie folks are now getting a chance to play their instruments for the background score of a web series," she says.

The C4C template for musicians is a good place for beginners to get a feel of what a contract should look like, says Himanshu Vaswani, co-founder of Mumbai-based music programming company 4/4 Experiences. “Having said that, it would be great if these guys can supplement it with ready reckoners about the kinds of rights in a musical work. Historically, in India, artists have happily signed away a whole bundle of rights even in situations where, for example, they could have just licensed the work for a specified period," Vaswani adds. “New artists need to know what to look for in a contract because if you are working with a brand or an event promoter, most of the time, they will send you their own contract draft."

This is the kind of feedback the C4C trio is keen on receiving. They are considering adding templates for more categories, such as dance performers. There is also a plan to supplement the templates with offline workshops and panel discussions about contractual issues and negotiation. “We have day jobs so it is going to be quite challenging, but we are very encouraged by the response. Already, people are writing to us asking questions like ‘Can we add X or Y to this contract?’" says Joshi.

Another aim of C4C is to help artists appreciate their own value. “When you work for less than what you are worth, it also skews the whole ecosystem. This sort of price-cutting can hamper creative output," says Joshi. Kapadia believes the right paperwork can foster a sense of professionalism and help parties arrive at fairer rates. “Some clients will say, ‘I don’t do contracts, and if you insist on doing one, then I will just go to someone who works without one’. So my vision is a contract for all artists. If everyone insists on working with a contract, what can they do?"

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