Strike a partnership

Protecting your rights is an essential part of collaborating with others. Nicolette Hamilton tells you everything you need to know to stay safe.

Creative partnerships can be extremely rewarding professional relationships. Not only do they offer the chance to explore new directions and markets for your work, they also enable you to achieve far more in a given time period than you could alone.

It can be easy to dive straight into the creativity of a new project and enjoy the exciting opportunities presented, but it could save a lot of heartache down the line if you agree your working arrangements with your collaborators properly from the outset.

Legal expert Nicolette Hamilton has advised the AOI and worked for the Intellectual Property Office. Here's her indispensable collaboration reference guide, packed with invaluable tips and solid, professional advice for anyone about to join creative forces.

Tip 1: Is it right for you?
It might seem like an obvious question, but if you have reservations about working with someone - or on a project - take time out first to carefully consider whether it's in your best interests to do so. Does the other person have the right experience? Will the project fit in with your other commitments? Do you want your work to go in this direction? You might feel that you need the work or a particular opportunity, but beware of investing time and money into a project that could turn into a nightmare. Many self-publishing author-illustrator collaborations end up as a real headache for the illustrator, for instance, if the author doesn't have the right experience.

Tip 2: Get it in writing
In the UK, anyone can draw up their own contract - it's an excellent business and project management tool, and will avoid the misunderstandings that can occur with verbal agreements and emails. A contract can take the form of a letter signed by both parties: in the usual way that you would write a letter, simply set out your terms under numbered paragraphs. A good model to follow is: 'Dear Collaborator. As discussed in our meeting, we will be working on our project under the terms set out in this letter. Please sign and return to confirm your agreement'.

Tip 3: Duration
Decide how long you want your collaboration to be, and put this into your written agreement. You might just want to join forces for one short-term project - a new agreement could then be negotiated for any subsequent projects if need be. However, a longer-term arrangement might be more appropriate, with no definite termination date. If this is the case, make sure you think about what you would do in the event of any unforeseen circumstances, such as serious illness or death, or if one party wanted to move on before the project was finished.

Tip 4: Who owns the copyright?
Unless otherwise agreed, you'll jointly own copyright in any whole work created, and individually in part. Bear in mind that this can be problematic when large numbers of people are working on a project, as permission will be needed from all parties for licences and reuses to be agreed. You'll need to establish a way of ensuring that you can communicate with each other long term, as copyright will last for 70 years after the death of the longest surviving member. If you're set up as a company, you could find that it's more suitable for the company to own the copyright.

Tip 5: Decision-making
From the day-to-day operations to strategic and financial management, decide how you'll make decisions and put this into your working agreement. Make sure you think this part out carefully: you need to get the right balance of autonomy for individuals for smaller decisions, and consultation and agreement with your collaborators for the more major decisions. As illustrator Karoline Rerrie of Girls Who Draw collective explains, "When groups are involved, the simplest task can take forever, especially when you have to email everyone, and read and respond to all their individual replies." To avoid this, put strategies in place for being able to make decisions without delay.

Tip 6: The finances
Always write the financial contributions, obligations and liabilities of each person, and what their percentage of any profits will be, into the agreement. Consider thresholds for making financial decisions, for example, transactions over £200 might need agreement from all parties. And think about how your pricing strategy will work: "Setting prices for products can be particularly troublesome," says Rerrie, "especially when you have people from different backgrounds. It's unlikely that a group will agree on every issue. Everyone's entitled to their opinions, but you need to be willing to compromise."

Tip 7: Roles and responsibilities
Set out the tasks and expectations of each party in the main body of your agreement. A detailed order of proceedings and deadlines can be drawn up in a separate document that you should refer to in your agreement as a Schedule of Work. Include important information such as who will be obtaining any permission for any content, and by what date, and when roughs will be provided or approved. It's always good practice to work through this together to make sure that the schedule is realistic - this will allow you to iron out any potential problems before they arise.

Tip 8: Territory
In the digital age, collaborations can transcend geographical boundaries. Illustrator and designer Adi Gilbert collaborated with animator Matt Chandler for a commission from the Extreme Sports Channel - the two have never met each other, and communicated via email and FTP. "I wasn't sure how it would work out doing a project entirely apart," says Gilbert, "but it was surprising how well we worked together, and we delivered a package that the client loved." If you're collaborating electronically, remember that overseas territories will have different laws and regulations to the UK. It's essential to stipulate the country of jurisdiction somewhere in the agreement.

Tip 9: Conflict and dispute resolution
In the case of serious disputes, an agreement written at the start of the project will provide you with a level of protection. If one party is in breach of their contract, the other party can sue for damages. However, if there is no written agreement - or it's incomplete - you'll find yourself at the mercy of the court to decide what was agreed. It can become expensive and time-consuming for courts to unravel the tangle of claims and counterclaims, and the outcome is always uncertain. Make sure you have an agreement in writing from the outset.

Tip 10: Breaking your partnership
Agree how you will terminate the agreement, making sure you cover issues such as division of profits or losses, and notice period. The termination clause will need to balance the protection of the interests of any ongoing project, and the trade of the outgoing party. A clause can be added to protect lucrative relationships with clients - although these must be reasonable in both time and territory, as the law will not hold any unreasonable restriction of trade as valid.