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Upcoming Lecture: Practical Legal Knowledge for Photographers and Artists

As you enter the professional world as an artist, legal questions and concerns begin to present themselves. You’ve mainly been photographing friends – will you begin to present them with model releases? How will you protect your work as you try to market it on the web? It can be overwhelming, and difficult to get good information as you build your business.

To address these issues, we are pleased to present a lecture by John Baldrica, MFA, JD, and assistant General Counsel for SAG-AFTRA. Tailored to the concerns of photographers and artists both starting out in the business or deep in their career, this three-hour talk will present a streamlined overview of the laws most relevant to their calling, from contract basics to intellectual property. Participants will discover common misconceptions about the law and glean powerful, practical lessons from other creators’ hard-fought legal battles.

The talk will be held on Thursday, Sept. 25 from 6-9pm. To learn more and enroll, click here.

We spoke to John about his background, and the world of arts and the law. Please note: John Baldrica is Assistant General Counsel for SAG-AFTRA;  the opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

John Baldrica

John Baldrica

What are some of the unique legal challenges faced by artists that others might not be aware of?

There are certainly legal issues that artists face more frequently. For example, a lot of the basic rights and obligations related to creative works–things like the ability to use or sell a particular image–turn on who is the legally recognized owner.  This may be addressed by a contract, but might also be affected by the circumstances surrounding a particular work’s creation.  Does an existing contract make it a work for hire, owned by an employer?  Could someone else’s involvement mean they might be considered a co-creator?  Did the people in the photograph give consent?  Consider all of the academic questions that surrounded the Ellen-Oscar-Selfie, and imagine what a mess it would be if a creative business relied on using images like that but didn’t think through those issues ahead of time.

Another challenge–and this is not unique to artists–is that legal disputes can often follow financial success.  One of the intentional features of our court system is that it is designed, in part, to be burdensome and expensive, with the hope that people will try to resolve their disputes and only fight it out when the underlying issues are really worth it.  You can argue whether the system has the intended effect, but as a practical matter it means that if you’ve just made a million dollars selling the Oscar-Selfie, those questions are no longer just academic.

Is there a common mistake or oversight you see artists make that can have serious consequences?

Again, it’s not unique to artists, but one of the most serious risks anyone can take is signing a contract that they don’t fully understand.  This is not to say that artists should avoid formal contracts.  They exist because they are very useful for handling anticipated problems that might not be addressed by the “default” laws in effect.  And artists, by the nature of their work, are often pushing boundaries of technology or expression where the law is not entirely settled.

But the flip side is that, in most cases, the law will treat a contract that two parties have willingly entered as the starting and ending point of the inquiry, even if it gives a clear advantage to one side.  That could mean anything from being obligated to pay the other party’s legal bills in a lawsuit, to giving up all of your rights in your work.  And, because individual artists are often dealing with large companies, there is already an imbalance of negotiating power, so it’s even more important that artists understand all the obligations they are agreeing to.

Its Your Show 2013 Reception image for slider

Pondering the legal ramifications of displaying work at our student show.

What in your background led you to this area of the law, or why did you chose to focus on issues of law in media?

Before law, one of the things I worked in (and taught) was web and Flash design.   At real risk of dating myself, this was in the Wild-West days of unique, subversive, creative work being done for the Internet, before even the advent of YouTube.  Think “email link to a GeoCities page.”   As a result, I was inevitably fielding questions about the legal ramifications of various projects, to which, at the time, I could basically say just “try not to get sued.”

Now, a decade or so later, I can give basically the same advice, but with lots of Latin words.  I’m (probably) joking, but the exciting and occasionally nerve-wracking thing about the edges of any developing medium is that the law takes time to catch up with the culture.  So often the best you can do is to try to anticipate what might be issues in the future.

What do you hope students will gain from the lecture?

There’s a natural tension between the arts and the law, because, in part, one is focused on taking risks and the other on avoiding them.  But, when they are working best, both the law and the arts are about solving problems and finding balance.  It’s certainly a matter of debate where that balance should be, particularly in terms of allowing creative expression.  But, ideally, we probably want a legal system that is flexible enough to encourage innovation and risk taking, but protective enough that creators can benefit from their innovations.  Through this lecture, I’d hope to chip away at least a little of the perceived complexity surrounding the law and give students concrete ideas of how they can use
it to help themselves.

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