Collaborating on Art? Why You Need a Contract

by guest blogger Marlo Spieth

Use this legal checklist to understand your rights and responsibilities when collaborating on artwork.


Art Business 101: Contracts by Marlo Spieth. See her legal checklist at


Collaboration is a frequent component of making great art. The efforts of several people can allow for a creation greater and more nuanced than that of one. Indeed, historically great painters would often have studios filled with “students” who did much, if not all, of the technical painting.

Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, well known for his piece The Elevation of the Cross, is one such case. It has been said that he would essentially only design the layout of a painting before handing it off to his students. And yet, the names and contributions of these underlings goes unrecognized.

Is this legal?

Aside from the fact that our contemporary legal system has no application in 17th century Europe, the theoretical verdict of a lawsuit between the students and Peter Paul Rubens would likely boil down to one factor: contracts.

Did the students relinquish their rights to name recognition and intellectual property? Or was there no contract at all? In that case, they could likely sue and win for rights to and financial gains from the paintings.

What does this mean for professional artists today?

When conducting business, it is absolutely necessary to get agreements in writing and signed by both parties. There are two contracts that are particularly relevant in collaborative situations: an independent contractor agreement and a partnership agreement.

Think of the partnership agreement as a true “joint-venture” agreement. It would be relevant if you were going to start a business with a friend, say where you fabricate leather goods and they market them. Alternatively, it would be relevant if you were collaborating with another artist on a piece for a third party. The contract should identify the individual responsibilities and contributions of each person.

Think of the independent contractor agreement as an employment agreement for a specific project. There is no set definition of an “independent contractor” but there are factors that the government considers when ruling on the status of a worker. To hire someone as an independent contractor, you, the employer, must adhere to guidelines, such as:

  • not give them benefits: insurance, paid leave, 401K, etc.
  • not dictate their work hours
  • not reimburse them for tools or expenses
  • allow them to work and advertise their services elsewhere

Let’s say that a local store hires you to create an installation for their lobby. Your vision incudes some glass “teardrop” bulbs that would hang from the ceiling, but that’s not your expertise. You might hire a glass blower to serve as an independent contractor for the project. Be sure that the contract lays out the specific terms and conditions of the project!

Remember, even when working with someone you trust, it’s always necessary to have the agreement in writing. As a business owner, it may sometimes be on you to draft up a contract! To do so, you can use the following as a quick checklist of necessary inclusions:

Identification:  List all parties, using their legal business names, and their full contact information.

Deadlines: When the contract takes effect and expires, as well as certain landmarks that must be reached.

Payment: How and when the products or services will be paid for.

Confidentiality: Explicitly state that sensitive information should be kept confidential.

Disputes: Have a method outlined for how to resolve any disagreements between the parties. This can avoid your having to go to court and ultimately save a lot of time and money.

Finally, always have a a lawyer review any contract before you sign it. With such high stakes, it’s critical to make sure it’s done right!


Marlo Spieth is a casual writer and professional relationship builder. She currently does outreach for Avvo, an online legal marketplace that connect citizens and lawyers. Avvo makes legal faster and easier. 


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