Blueprint: Law For Creatives [RECAP 07.25.13]

AIGA Los Angeles presented Blueprint: Law for Creatives on Thursday, July 25, 2013 at The Hub. Geared towards freelancers and design firm owners, this event featured a panel of experts–lawyers, designers and creative business owners–for an in-depth discussion focused on intellectual property rights and contracts.

The panel was led by design management consultant and creative strategist, Terry Lee Stone and featured attorney, Jonathan TobinWolk Levine Partner, Zachary Levine; CEO and Founder of Knock Knock, Jen Bilik and Co-Founder and CEO of The Noun Project, Sofya Polyakov.

Stone opened up the conversation with the question “Do you own your copyright until you give it away?” The answer of course is yes, but Bilik immediately acknowledged the right of ownership doesn’t do much to dissuade those who would “borrow” original designs under the guise of being “transformative.”

My basic rule of thumb is that if I ever have the nagging feeling that my work is beginning to look too inspired by another’s, that’s just my creative instincts telling me that I need to get back to drawing board. I usually find the best and most original work is hidden just beyond that point.

There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice required from us in the field of design and that work should be protected. Unfortunately, Terry pointed out that many designers give up their copyrights before they even know it,  just by not fully reading their contracts when coming under the umbrella of an agency or large company.

“Doesn’t your employer have the right to your work?” Terry asked. Tobin chimed in to point out that in this case there’s a bit of a gray area and outlined as master service agreements, licensing and employment agreements as three intellectual property contracts every designer should draft up and keep close by.


Side Note: You can find a FREE standard form of agreement for design services listed under Tools & Resources on the AIGA website.

Both panelists Sofya Polyakov and Jen Bilik confessed to using AIGA’s standard form of agreement as foundation for their contract’s which they later customized to meet their needs as their career’s continued to evolved.

If you’re still in the beginning stages of your career, it can be nerve racking to approach your client or future employer with your concerns or requirements in reference to their contract. In the past, I’ve reached out to my mentors in the design industry for direction on how to professionally assert myself and I would highly suggest the same for anyone in a similar situation.

Terry pointed out that the sheer size of some contracts can be daunting to a potential client and asked what designers can do to protect their rights without scaring off would-be clients. “It’s about finding a happy medium,” said Bilik “it’s easy to get sued for illegitimate reasons and it’s difficult to defend yourself so you need to look at the contract period as a sort of courtship.”

Tobin agreed and highlighted the importance of having these conversations while everyone is happy rather than in the midst of a problem. “Agreements are like prenups, they’re for worst case scenarios,“ said Bilik who also warned that it should be a major red flag when a potential client is resistant to negotiating a contract for a project that would traditionally have one.

Since my move to LA, I’ve learned that taking on new clients is a bit like finding a good parking spot in Venice. If you don’t read all the signs it could end up costing you much more than the original spot was worth and that’s what you want to avoid. Taking the time to do a little research on potential clients to find out what works best for both you is important and you should never work with someone who isn’t respectful of that process.

Next, Terry asked the panel how ridged designers should be when it comes to following to their contracts. Levine pointed out that it really depends on the relationship between the client and designer. “You can find flexibility with cure periods and wavier provisions which allow for mistakes or unexpected events to be forgiven while still maintaining the responsibilities of your contract for the future.”

“How do you enforce your contract?” Terry asked. Levine highlighted that being consistent and open about what your expectations are and the steps you’re willing to take to ensure they’re met is key. The panel also unanimously agreed that putting everything in writing from the beginning to the end of a project is good practice and can come in handy if you find yourself in the middle of a lawsuit.

For example, if there were ever a modification made to a projects timeline, outcome or other, it would be in your best interest to send an email reconfirming that adjustment and requesting a confirmation from the decision maker. By taking an extra five-minutes, you have given yourself a date marked, confirmation of that change and that could make all the difference if you ever need it.

With lawsuits now fresh on the mind, it wasn’t long before the names Shepard Fairey and Jeff Koons came up. Both artists were sued in high-profile copyright cases although the main focus of the panel quickly shifted to the nearly two-year battle that pinned Modern Dog Design against corporate giants Disney, Target and a few of their subsidiaries in 2011.

The suit alleges that Disney and Target, along with their subsidiaries, used 26 dog illustrations (yes DOG ILLUSTRATIONS!) that belonged to Modern Dog without the agency’s permission. Bilik explained how Modern Dog sold their Greenwood studio in 2012 to further fund their lawsuit, officially solidified the agency’s place as the poster child for copyright enforcement.

Side Note: 99 Designs posted a fantastic review titled 5 Famous Copyright Infringement Cases (What You Can Learn) which discusses the cases of Fairy, Koons, Modern Dog and more!

Although for the average design studios and freelancer, Levine pointed out that the best solution is to try and reach a resolution outside of court where you can maintain some level of control through negotiation.

Blueprint: Event Images


About the Author: 

Moi1 copy







Amy Nadeen Wilson is a freelance designer and Marketing Communications Assistant, for OutThink Partners specializing in social media outreach. As Communications Co-Chair for AIGA’s Los Angeles Chapter, she leads outreach efforts through Facebook, Twitter and AIGA’s website with the objective of informing, inspiring and engaging the creative community of Los Angeles.

Learn more about Amy through her online portfolio at or follow her on Twitter @amynadeenwilson.

By AIGA Los Angeles
Published August 13, 2013
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.