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E026 License to Create with Manojna Yeluri – Part 2

In part 2 of our conversation with Manojna Yeluri – Lawyer and Founder of Artistik License, we continue talking through the legalities of being artists and designers.

We talk about the ways she has used social media to make the law approachable and easy to understand and apply for creatives. 

She talks about entitlement in the form of discounts and freebies being a deterrent to the creative economy and industry as a whole.

Among other bad practices in the creative industry, Manojna shares the concept of Passion Exploitation – which tends to justify less payment because the artist or designer is passionate about their work.

She talks about the power of community and support to compare notes and bring awareness about their rights as creators. She also calls out the scarcity mindset of project bidding which can negatively affect both the creator and the industry.

We go into a discussion on economic and opportunity losses and cancellations because of the current Covid-19 situation around the world, and how to navigate it in the legal sense.

We also hear stories of creators taking advantage of other creators in unethical ways and how she as a lawyer dealt with those situations.

Listen here:

 

References:

Manojna is the founder of Artistik License, a legal consultancy for artists and creative professionals

Sushi mentions job bidding platforms like Freelancer.com, Fiverr.com , 99Designs and we briefly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a set-up.

They also discuss about the pay-what-you-like model. Angie mentions Patreon , a platform that artists to present choices on how their fans can support them.

Manojna quotes artist and educator Toni Cade Bambara talking about the role of an artist in revolution.

Manojna talks about design-related resources she loves. She enjoys reading the online magazine, Creative Boom. She  recommends checking out the Instagram of designer Mira Malhotra. She recommends the podcast Maed in India  for supporters and creators of Independent music.

Covid-19 freelance artists resource is a useful list of resources available to creators trying to navigate these uncertain times.

You can follow Manojna and Artistik License on Instagram @artistiklicense . Her side project Contracts for Creators , co-founded with Ayesha Kapadia and Mihir Joshi , provides free and editable contract templates that aim to keep it simple, while explaining all necessary jargon.

 

Transcript


 

Sushi: You certainly seem quite ahead of your time. Most young creatives see lawyers, they find them quite unapproachable. Artistik License, on the other hand, is on Instagram. And no one ever thinks of a lawyer being on Instagram. Your posts are not only informative, but are also filled with empathy.Even in my conversation with you, I could just see that you’ve really put yourself in the shoes of artists and designers. Was it a deliberate choice, to be the friendly neighborhood lawyer for all artists and designers? 

Manojna: I absolutely love that title. I think I’m going to put that on my business cards. Thank you so much, honestly, because it really does mean a lot to me to hear that a lot of what I put out there, the fact that it resonates with so many people in it, it does sort of a different level. It is a very deliberate choice in the sense that it is also the kind of person that I am. I’m a very creator-first law person. I also really respect creators and the creative process. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to be able to put yourself out there, put your imagination out there, and then be able to present it to the world. I think it takes a lot of courage. So I’m always in awe of people who have taken up some kind of creative discipline as their livelihood, as their form of expression. I think it’s beautiful. 

As for empathy, I think I was also very intentional in the sense that there’s a reason why I call Artistik License a consultancy, and not a law firm or law practice. I didn’t ever want it to be synonymous with a traditional idea of what a law firm is, which is all the glass doors and everybody wearing power suits. I mean, I love a good suit. I’m not going to say that I don’t, but that whole formidable “I’ve lawyered-up, I’m now with the shark.” It doesn’t have to be that intense, in my opinion. It’s very important that everybody who works with each other understands what they’re getting into, because this is some sensitive stuff. You’re not coming to a lawyer just for the heck of it. You probably have something really serious to discuss with them.

So the last thing you want, is to be stressed out by how they talk and how they make you feel and make these strange assumptions about how much they might cost you. It is a very deliberate choice. I am very mindful of the kind of clients that I work with. I have consciously taken the decision to work out of home offices because I want to keep those costs low, so that they don’t translate to my claims.

It’s all quite deliberate, but at the same time it isn’t because, I am very much what you see is what you get. I’m a big fan girl. So this is kind of the way I operate. 

Sushi: Even the posts that you put up on Instagram, even if its a small quote, there’s an element of inspiration, as well as an element of, do this if you want to do well, kind of thing. Useful and energizing at the same time. 

Manojna: I’m so happy to hear that they, you know, they all come out of my head. That’s amazing. 

Sushi: We also love that you’re talking about the unspoken crappy things in the creative industry. One of the things that you mentioned was about guest lists and freebies. Can you elaborate on this? 

Manojna: I think that there are a lot of people out there who talk a good game about supporting small businesses and their friends who happen to be designers or musicians or actors. At the same time, something that I think people need to understand is that support can take many forms. There’s no doubt about that. 

So sometimes one way to show support for a creative professional is to show up. But I don’t think that should be considered the norm, in the sense that at the same time, you can’t encourage a culture where you are expected to get a discount or expected to get things for free, because there’s a lot of hard work and investment that goes into producing the thing that you’re putting out there.

I definitely try and pay my way into most gigs that I go to. I don’t like to be on the guest list, but I am grateful whenever I’m put on one, but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t happen that often and I’m okay with that. This isn’t a situation of sour grapes. If I want to honestly be a part of the creative economy that means that I have to contribute to the creative economy, and then one way or the other that money will come back. Because that’s how you’re supposed to do it. There is a vague, crappy sense of entitlement that some people have. 

I have to share this because it really annoys me, so I definitely, I definitely want to bring it up. So a couple of years back, there was a flea market of some kind – obviously, I mean your urban chic flea markets. I had gone there along with a couple of friends, one of whom was a really talented musician and visual artist. He had theories about a lot of different things. So he wasn’t somebody who was ever short of opinions. But I think one thing that we would constantly go back and forth about was the fact that when you are a creative professional, it’s difficult to make a livelihood because people don’t necessarily understand how to attach value to the thing that you’re putting out there.

On this particular day, there was a photographer who was giving away prints of his work – big, well done, beautiful prints. The thing is, he wasn’t giving them away as such. It was a pay-what-you-like model and a lot of different people picked up different pieces and paid different amounts.

What annoyed me – and I don’t know, you should actually tell me if I, if I’m right and feeling annoyed about this or not – is that my friend, this individual, picked up about four or five prints and put down 50 rupees, and I was just very confused by it because as much as I knew it was pay-what-you-like, I felt like as a creative person, it was rather hypocritical at the end of the day. How would you feel about this?

Sushi: I personally would never be brave enough to say pay-what-you-like. I think it may also come across to some people as not being confident enough, and just trying your luck and hence think you don’t deserve to be paid that much. I personally feel you must either invest in it and then give it away for free, or you should have some kind of conditional approach to it. But when you say pay-what-you-like, you are giving people an option to undervalue your work. That’s just my personal opinion. 

Manojna: I think that’s a very interesting perspective, because one issue that we face in the creative industries is that it’s very difficult for us to express quantitatively, what a number would be, to the kind of work, and it’s super funny because I actually came across something in a couple of weeks back on Passion Exploitation. 

It’s this theory that, if you are somebody who is passionate about a particular job and that’s why you’re doing it, it seems like a justification to be paid less for it. So you, as a person who is the passionate designer, are justifying to yourself that you are being paid less because this is your passion and the person who’s paying you – either your client or your boss – is also justified in doing that because they somehow feel comfortable because, this person is doing what they want to do.

Sushi: They just draw all day!

Manojna: Exactly. What a fun life,Yeah? I used to get that too. I remember things like, Oh, it must be so much fun since you get to go to concerts and exhibitions all the time. No, that’s literally not what I do. Maybe I should add that to the unspoken crappy things list.

Sushi: It may not be that extreme, but also when you’re taking up new projects as an artist or a designer, you’re desperate for some kinds of projects. They seem so exciting that you’re willing to be undercut and get paid very less just so that you can work on it. You even see companies putting out these things that they’re calling “fellowships” where you pay them to go to their offices and solve their problems for them.That’s definitely passionate exploitation. 

Manojna: That’s all kinds of exploitation. Passion is like a smaller slice of it, but for sure. Even if you are taking onboard an unpaid intern, which still happens even in the law field, I think that it’s okay to the point of which your intern is being given the opportunity to learn and not actually being expected to carry out tasks for the company. I agree with you. These fellowship things are popping up everywhere and somebody has really packaged them nicely. 

Sushi: I’ve seen so many people fall for them. 

Manojna: For sure. Yeah. I think that’s the other issue, and which is one of the reasons why I really love your podcast, um, because it, it sort of ties community together. There’s an understanding that you’re not in it on your own. A lot of the times, people feel that just because they choose to be independent, they have to be isolated and they really don’t, and I think, that’s very important because, people on the outside – corporates and clients – do take advantage of the fact that not enough creators are talking to each other. They don’t know what the standard rate is, they don’t know what the standard norms are. 

Sushi: And there’s also this unspoken competition. 

Manojna: For sure. 

Sushi: And then there are platforms like freelancer.com and a few local platforms where designers put in hours of work competing with other designers from around the world, and the client gets their pick. Maybe it’s great quality work, maybe it’s bad quality work, but what are the odds that a design gets selected and the designer gets paid for it? What do you think about that kind of set-up? 

Manojna: Maybe it’s a good place to start off, especially thinking back on the conversation about the pay-what-you-like model. It is possible to consider that if somebody doesn’t feel confident enough about their work, this is one way to gain some kind of validation. But the larger question is, at what cost? It’s not even about the fact that you may or may not get paid. I think the bigger issue here is that you are contributing to creating a very imbalanced bargaining dynamic between your side, which is basically the designer side, and a client, or a corporate, basically on the other side, or even another small business for that matter. 

Sushi: For example, nobody challenges 50 lawyers to create a contract and then gets to pick the best contract.

Manojna: I just had a very, very interesting visual image of what that might look like. I think that there’s a certain level of competitiveness and bidding, and a lot of it comes from this scarcity mindset that we’re all encouraged to have. But there comes a point where you have to start understanding that your growth is very connected to the growth of your industry as well.

So if your entire industry is doing better, you will do better too, because you are a part of that industry. And that’s the foundation for things such as collective bargaining and unionization. So I definitely think that there’s a mindset shift that needs to happen when it comes to this, because it’s just not good business at the end of the day. 

If you had a justification for it, say you wanted to make something accessible or you want it to cater to a particular demographic that doesn’t necessarily have access, or whatever else your reasons are, if you can justify those reasons then that’s fair, but if your intention is to get the gig, no matter what happens, then you’re not going to be building a sustainable career.

Sushi: There is a stereotype that creatives are often in their own bubbles, they don’t engage with the world enough, but with the current political climate in India, we see a lot of artists and designers come out and protest with some of their most creative work. Can you share your perspective as a non-artistic professional who’s very much in the artistic scene?

Manojna: You had asked me earlier if I have any artistic inclinations. One thing that I do enjoy is writing. I don’t mean that in a very flamboyant, or even in a particularly grammatically correct manner, but I like to communicate using words. I find it very comforting. I write this newsletter called the Creative Spark, where I like to talk about the creative economy and creative community. When you’re a lawyer, you’re expected to have fixed perspectives on things. But I think that because I am very fascinated by the way in which people create and how creativity reflects on kinds of aspects of life, I do have a lot of thoughts and resources, and I’m a fan girl at the end of the day. So I have to put all of these things somewhere. So I actually do write this newsletter and very recently, one of the letters that I wrote actually started off with this quote by, this artist and educator, Toni Cade Bambara.

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”

Sushi: Wow!

Manojna: It’s so powerful, and I love it because I think it really hit home for me because that’s the importance of art. The fact that it allows you to express, the fact that allows you to communicate and it is an incredible superpower to be able to communicate with people in a way and through media that are both meaningful and soul-stirring. So from that perspective, I think it’s wonderful that so many creators, so many illustrators, so many musicians in the country have decided to express their socioeconomic, their socio-political views, because it is a part of art. And not just art. I think the fact that we can express is a part of the freedom of speech and expression, the idea is to challenge systems and the status quo, but also to do that in a space and in a medium that we’re comfortable then, so yeah, I think it’s a wonderful thing.

Sushi: But also, where do you think artists and designers should draw the line, in purely legal terms? How much can you express before it stops being not art?

Manojna: I think that’s a very tricky question in the sense that drawing lines and drawing boundaries is a very difficult thing for most of us to do.

It’s also difficult when you look at it from a legal perspective, and in scenarios like this, you can’t just transplant what the law says directly on to this situation because the idea is, that you are probably communicating things to challenge the status quo, and the law does allow you to do that. You have the freedom of speech and expression so that you can create some kind of commentary on society, so that you can, make parodies and satirical statements about people and public institutions. But a lot of it also has to be understood conditionally. An interesting thing is that even the freedom of speech and expression has something called reasonable restrictions. Its a part of our constitution as well. I’m definitely simplifying this, but the idea is that you can choose to express yourself freely, so long as it doesn’t incite any kind of panic or violence, and basically doesn’t harm the greater good.

These are already really vague variables to be working with. I think even though you did ask me to define legal boundaries, I think maybe one way to think about this is, in the fight for justice and in the fight for what’s right, while it’s important to stand your ground, it’s also very important to do so with kindness.I remember a quote that I read, a couple of years ago, which kind of goes along the lines of how, honesty without kindness is basically cruelty and it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s a question of how you want to set those boundaries. 

Going back into the law frame. If you are making a statement about somebody and you are in some sense, criticizing them, you then run the risk of things like defamation. You could run the risk of compromising someone’s privacy. And honestly, those are questions that you also need to ask yourself as an individual, as a citizen, as a human being. Are you okay with intruding in on someone’s privacy for the greater good? it’s a mess. 

Sushi: Coming back to current events in our country. A lot of events have been canceled due to the Covid19 situation that is currently happening, and all of us are working from home, but its also resulted in a lot of losses for everyone in the design and art field as well from designers who create material for events to designers who’ve invested in buying material, to actual performing artists. Not to mention all the photographers and gig workers. Do artists and designers have any rights in such situations. Are contracts voided?

Manojna: We’re definitely in a delicate situation, to say the least. The kind of the losses that we are facing and will probably face in the months to come, and specifically the economic losses of this, are definitely going to get the better of us, so we might as well brace for impact. Unfortunately, I think that this is also a wake up call to a lot of people in the creative economy to understand why they need to have contracts in place and why they should be reading those contracts before they sign them. Because, unfortunately there’s language and clauses and a lot of these contracts that if they had been tweaked earlier, could have definitely salvaged things in a situation like this.

Typically, when you’re looking to cancel an engagement or to terminate an agreement, you are given the choice to do so. You can also attribute that cause to one party, so it’s either a client-derived cancellation or it’s an artist-derived cancellation, or a promoter-derived cancellation – whatever the case might be. There are then procedures following that in the contract itself. But in a scenario like this, nobody can be blamed because this is something that’s completely out of everyone’s control, and this is kind of what goes into something called a force majeure clause, which is very colloquially referred to as an Acts of God kind of clause.

That clause essentially is supposed to say, that if due to some kind of unforeseeable event, like an earthquake or a flood or an epidemic, or even sometimes political unrest, the parties to a contract are unable to carry out the obligations under that contract, then they can choose to reschedule the event so they can choose to postpone. If its practically impossible to complete the contract despite rescheduling, then the contract will be terminated. So at least in this scenario, nobody has to pay the other person any damages or any penalties. Unfortunately, at this point, what you’ve lost is what you lost. So if you are somebody who invested money in materials, you don’t have anybody to go back to and ask for that money. 

But the good news is that you don’t owe the other parties anything else. This is just a general understanding of how this clause works. It ultimately depends on what it looks like in your contract, because if your contract didn’t even have a force majeure clause, then you’re at the mercy of your contract. So it’s a, it’s a pretty tough time at this point. 

Sushi: Have there been instances where you were on the other side of things, where you had to protect a client or the corporation from a creative? I think that’s the story we’d all love to hear. 

Manojna: I do see this happening from time to time, but I’m generally a creator-first person, so I don’t end up representing a lot of the corporations.

I’m usually the person who is basically making it very unpleasant for the corporation or the client, which I love. Absolutely. I think, unfortunately, I’ve come across some interesting situations where a lot of creators have tried to outwit other creators. 

A client of mine who is a very well known musician and composer, was supposed to be collaborating and writing a piece of work. Later, he was unceremoniously left out of those shares and conversations. So that was a huge mess. 

I remember from quite a few years ago, a jewelry designer who had gone ahead and somehow procured the copyright over traditional designs. It was very interesting because these designs came from a community. And she would employ members from that community, but she wouldn’t necessarily give any proceeds back to them. It would just be whatever she was paying them for the work and she would send out a lot of infringement notices to other portals and companies and designers who she believed were infringing her designs. It was very, very messed up. 

Sushi: These designs are probably decades or even centuries old, right?

Manojna: They’re community-based designs, I mean, it’s intangible heritage, you know? Nobody owns them, its the entire community that owns them. So trying to wrap my head around this and then trying to explain it to this person was difficult. I withdraw from situations like this because after a point, I feel like it’s not aligned with my ethics, and it’s not to say that, one of the things about being a lawyer is that your loyalties do lie with the side that’s engaged you. 

But having said that, I’ve had moments like this, where I’ve just been totally frustrated, so I don’t want to try having the conversation anymore. So I sort of do an exit-stage-left kind of move just as quickly as I can. 

I think a more recent one, again, where I had to take myself out of this equation, and very unfortunately, was a filmmaker, who had shot an entire documentary about a particular person and their life, utilize all this person’s resources, and then decided to try and put the film out without any permissions, any releases, nothing signed, even from the subject of the film! Which I was flabbergasted with. 

That’s the other thing. It’s not such a big community. We all find out about each other, one way or the other. So it’s a question of, maybe not this week, but chances are we’ll find out what the story is in six months, if not less. 

Sushi: And different versions of the story.

Manojna: Absolutely. All versions of it, thank goodness. But sometimes it’s, very, very confusing. 

Sushi: I don’t know if there are any other lawyers listening to this episode, but what advice do you have for professionals from other industries – engineers, doctors, teachers, hotel managers, who wish to work with designers?

Manojna: That’s a huge ask!

Sushi: Engage at your own risk? (laughs)

Manojna: Absolutely (laughs) Of course. I think it all sort of comes down to clarity. So if you choose to work with a designer, then its important to be sure as to why you want to work with a designer. So do a certain amount of homework. Maybe find out what kind of work that designer has done before.

 I’m sure you face this as well, where people just come up to you blank. It’s like, okay, so you are the person who’s going to help me do the thing right. And honestly, it’s such an awkward, uncomfortable, unprofessional way to do things. Its a very strange space to be in, because you don’t know how to educate the person and say, listen, you need to go back and do a little bit of research.

I like that there are a lot of designers who do that now, but at the same time, I think that’s the case with any service, so anyone looking to commission work. Honestly, I think it also comes down to respect because, – again I’m sure you must hear this a lot – there are a lot of people out there who say things like, Oh, but I could have just done this on Canva. Then do it on Canva. Don’t go and bring in a designer, have a different brief and hire somebody, because it’s a completely different thing to actually hire a designer. So yeah. So clarity and respect. 

Sushi: We love your Instagram page and we find your blog really useful, and now I want to get my hands on your newsletter as well. But what are some other resources that you recommend for designers and creative professionals? 

Manojna: It’s a bit of a growing list, I guess, but off the top of my head, there’s this digital magazine called Creative Boom. Have you, have you heard of it?

Sushi: Yes!

Manojna: I think they’re very, very popular with the design community. As I said, I’m too hippy to be a lawyer and I’m too lawyerly to be an artist. So, in that limbo that I sort of exist in, I stumbled on Creative Boom. And I love Creative Boom. I think beautiful resources there.

I also really like Mira Malhotra’s Instagram and Twitter feeds. She’s the founder of studio Kohl. I absolutely love any information that she puts out, because she’s so unforgiving of lapses, which I think is sometimes necessary. She’s very unapologetic, which I really admire. And she’s extremely organized when she puts stuff out. It’s fabulous, the way she chronologically puts things together. So I think she is somebody who, one can learn a lot from. 

I think in light of the coronavirus outbreak and all the ramifications of that, I came across this, website thanks to a friend of mine called Covid 19 freelance artists resource. It’s primarily geared towards people who work in and with the USA and Canada, but it’s got a lot of interesting resources in there. Everything from, how to handle those cancellation conversations, and a lot of financial health resources. 

If you’re a musician, I think you should definitely listen to Maed in India, which is M A E D in India. It’s a beautiful podcast about the independent music scene in India and Mae and her team do a fantastic job of highlighting independent music in the country. 

Last of all, there is another project that I’ve had the good fortune of co-founding and running, with my two co-founders Ayesha Kapadia and Mihir Joshi,  and it’s called Contracts for Creators and it’s an online tool where we provide creators all kinds of free contract templates that you can go ahead, download and customize. 

Sushi: That’s how I actually came to know about Artistik License!

Manojna:  Oh my goodness. I’m so glad!

Sushi: I find it very useful. So I was thinking, we have to interview these guys! 

So, how do creatives who need your services get in touch with you – the friendly neighborhood lawyer?

Manojna: The best way to get in touch with me with your questions and concerns would be dropping in an email to mailus@artistiklicense.org . You can also find this email ID and a lot of other information also on the website, which is http://www.artistiklicense.org. It’s artistiK with a K though. So there’s that. We are on Instagram and I myself, am also pretty active on Instagram.

Sushi: So thank you so much for doing this with us and for sharing this wealth of information, and it’s good to know that we have the law on our side.   

Manojna: Thank you so much for having me and for having these conversations! 

 

*End of Interview*

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