Design work used but not paid.
August 14, 2011 7:46 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with unpaid and non-contracted design work showing up on the net? The work was created based on the promise of a contract coming in any day.

Hello all,

Recently I have been in a somewhat awkward situation, workwise, where I was promised a job in a new start up. Because I had been looking for a decent job for a long time, I accepted even though many "infrastructural" elements were still missing from the company setup. There were no contracts yet, as the investors still had to be brought on board, so basically I received pocket money in irregular intervals, whilst waiting for everything to be set up correctly so salaries could be paid. The phrase pocket money should be taken literally, as it consisted of 3 or 4 times; once receiving around 150,- euro, and the rest 20 to 30 euro.

I was asked as a technical developer and in my first meeting with investors and other techs from affiliated companies, I brought up a solution for a tech-problem that found it's way into another business plan meant for future investors and labeled as a potential patent technology.

Apart from that I was asked to develop the company's branding and the website, all of which I did. I gave them notice, again, I could not work for free but felt more or less obliged to bring in some form of temporary website in order for the CEO and others to be able to collect investment money. I did not hear from them again but recently I noticed a weblog had been put on the web, utilizing my logo design and the slogan I made up, as well as a twitter account, again with the logo and slogan that I created.

I am wondering what my legal stand is at the moment, considering that I had no contract, but numerous promises of such a contract coming my way, as well as 5% of the shares of this new company. There are lots of email conversations regarding the topic and they are consistent in the promises made by the companies reps. And of course, all source material is in my posession.

Is there anything that I could use, regarding the utilization of my unpaid work?
posted by stthspl to Work & Money (10 answers total)
I'm afraid it sounds like you got played. You consciously and voluntarily did a ton of work with no contract and for little or no compensation beyond the aforementioned pocket money. This, sadly, is a trap a lot of us fall into at least once.

Promises for future work or compensation mean squat. Doubly-so with start-ups.

Now, if you have documentation as to requests for the work, any actual promises made, their timing, the files you supplied and the work now appearing online, you might be able to take your complaint to the company and request just compensation.

I suspect, though, that you would be on the receiving end of the entrepreneur's belly laugh with that request, since you have no actual contract.

Is there any sort of version of a small-claims court where you live? You might be able to get a sympathetic judge to order them to pay you some more compensation. But, that's a long shot.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:57 AM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Document the potential patent solution to protect your interests. Maybe even file to patent it yourself: as there's no contract, you can't force them to pay you, but neither can they prove they own the concept - no contract with rules about IP ownership.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:13 AM on August 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

I believe a copyright belongs to the artist unless he/she explicitly signs it over. And if there were no contracts, it sounds like you didn't sign it over. A copyright lawyer might give you a quick answer on that.

Still, even if that's right, the best you can probably do is to make them take it down and not use it again. A lawyer's letter might accomplish that; depends on what it's worth to you.

But I can't see you getting paid for it without a contract. Hope you didn't invest too much; you might have to just write it off as a tuition charge for the school of life and move on. Good luck.
posted by LonnieK at 8:30 AM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

In many jurisdictions, if you never signed over the right to use you work, they do not have the right to use your work. You may be in a position to request that they cease using your work. You may be in a position to claim some form of statutory damages. You should talk to someone who knows the law in your jurisdiction. Where are you?
posted by mr_roboto at 9:17 AM on August 14, 2011

The work was created based on the promise of a contract coming in any day.

Send a DMCA takedown notice to their ISP. Those things aren't just for music and movies. And, in the future, don't be a sucker.
posted by mhoye at 10:06 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need a lawyer. Some of these solutions are probably good, but you need a lawyer to help you do anything. I think you still own the artwork, and probably the ability to patent the work you did, but you need a lawyer for this. And there's no foul with the company. Your stance is "Can't wait to work with you, but of course I'm protecting my work."
posted by theora55 at 10:20 AM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

never work without a contract. never do spec work.

those were your first mistakes. you can get a lawyer, but it may end up costing you more than what you would have charged to do the work.
posted by violetk at 10:34 AM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

fwiw, startups often can't pay people who DO have contracts - I'm out over a year's pay from one, and I know I'll never see it. Someone did sue them for unpaid wages (based on a contract) just as a small amount of funding came through that person got the whole check and the rest of us were out of luck for the next three months (and thereafter, but that's a different story).
BUT - no contract means no obligations on your part. You can dmca the site, patent your idea - and unless they want to and actually CAN settle with you, they can't stop you.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:21 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

fwiw, startups often can't pay people who DO have contracts - I'm out over a year's pay from one, and I know I'll never see it.

this is why, when i am working with a new client, i always always ask for 50% of payment upfront before i even turn my computer on to start their project. then i ask for another 25% when the project is 3/4 completed, and then bill for the last 25% after completion of project. this payment structure is fully outlined in my contracts. this ensures i get paid something. if i have worked with someone already or have a history with them and know they aren't going to stiff me on payment, i usually have no problems billing them the entire amount after completion of project.
posted by violetk at 11:56 AM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Dear all,

Thank you very very much for your willingness to answer this question, an embarrassing one, to be honest. For I had read many postings on the topic. But sometimes life just behaves a bit more complicated, and I did not see another way at the time, to achieve something quick. Played. Got played. Lost.

With regards to the patent situation: I never believed that it could be filed as a patent, because it was based on existing technology. Despite that, the CEO decided to present it in a new business plan as patent-pending, or patentable.

Judging by the reactions here, I think I will just have to take my loss, broaden the shoulders and make sure it never happens again.
posted by stthspl at 9:34 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

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