Negotiating Contracts When You Can’t Afford a Lawyer

The latest post in Scratch‘s Anatomy of a Decision series on their blog is by Alexis Clements, who writes about her decision to let someone adapt her play internationally. She walks us through the initial offer, her second thoughts, the decision, and her feelings about it. It is AWESOME.

Without an agent or a union, I had to come up with the contract on my own. How? I consulted “my lawyer”: I went to the public library and checked out a few books on contract and copyright law for theater, one of which included a CD full of standard contracts. I’m sure if I had spoken to an agent or the Dramatists Guild about whether or not using such a book is good idea, they would have laughed in my face. It’s a little like asking a professional hairdresser if you should cut your own hair. They are obviously going to say, “Hell no!”—you’re a fool for even suggesting it. But I am someone who has cut part or all of my own hair on more than one occasion.

There is also a lot of information about how money works for playwrights (there, um isn’t much of it), which I found fascinating.

So where do playwrights make their money? Television and teaching are among the most popular income sources for well-known playwrights. Tons of the best television shows these days have playwrights behind them or on their writing teams (Six Feet Under, Weeds, Sopranos, Lost, Big Love, The Wire, among many others). Even some playwrights you might think are quite experimental are getting money working on Hollywood scripts. And higher education has long provided a financial home base for writers in every genre. Which is to say, very few playwrights make their money from the theater. And for those that self-produce, it’s more often about covering costs than it is about earnings. So maybe $500 was just fine.

Things ended well for Alexis — she negotiated an agreement that was much better than the initial offer, and one she felt good about. I love stuff like this. Go read the whole thing!

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2 Comments / Post A Comment

NB (#1,594)

This is awesome! Also, a service announcement for those who are not hiring lawyers: (and I say this as a lawyer who recommends that you occasionally do your own lawyering), many counties have a “public law library” (google it for your county, and the neighboring ones!) where members of the general public can come by and check out specific legal resources—often, what you’ll find there is broader and/or more up-to-date than the general library.

Guides like NOLO are really useful, and these libraries often have sample forms and pleadings that you can use for their jurisdiction. They’re also usually staffed by a staff attorney or a law librarian, who can be SUPER helpful in sorting out what you need to find. And, they generally partner with free legal clinics in the area—it’s not unusual for the county law library to offer 20 minutes of free legal time for county residents. Just show up, and start asking questions!

Meaghano (#529)

@NB That is awesome advice, thank you! Relatedly I have “write a will” on my to-do list and have been doing the to lawyer or not to lawyer debate, but ended up downloading forms from NOLO, which is my first encounter with it. It seems pretty amazing!

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