Anatomy of an Artist Invoice


For many emerging artists, the invoicing of direct or studio sales is a hastily filled out form (if there is any invoice at all). This is not as good an idea as it seems. In the absence of a more formalized sales contract, the invoice can define many important obligations between the buyer and the artist. This text will review a few of the critical terms that a relatively simple invoice can contain.

When does the Buyer actually own the Work?

The artist invoice can make clear that the buyer does not actually own the artwork until the artist is fully paid. An invoice containing words to the effect that, "title to the artworks remains in the artist until the artist has received the full amount owing for the artworks," can make recovery of the work in the case of non-payment significantly easier.

Title is an important legal category. It means that a court can, on the face of it, recognize that someone has a collection of exclusive rights as against other interests. Someone who has retained or acquired legal title has a court enforceable right to exclusively possess, use, sell, or otherwise dispose of an artwork. If an artist retains title, but allows the buyer to possess the work until being fully paid, then the exclusive rights listed above remain with the artist.

The fact that an artist has a strong legal right does not mean that one need to go to court to enforce it. The overwhelming majority of  contract disputes are settled out of court. The best way to prevent litigation (that is, the full process of having a court reach a decision on a matter) is to create and maintain clear legal distinctions around key questions. By doing so there is pressure on a non-performing party (in this case, a buyer who is not living up their side of the agreement) to respond without a court's intervention. A letter from a lawyer demanding the full payment or return of the works has a significantly higher chance of success if an artist has retained title in the manner described on the invoice. In the case where a problem needs a court's intervention, the issue of title will be key to an efficient and cost-effective proceeding.

Title does not mean Copyright

Even though copyright is created by law when the artwork takes on a tangible form, it is important to remind buyers that they are not acquiring rights to the creative content.  Copyright is a collection of rights, including making reproductions, adapting the work, selling or assigning rights to exploit the work, or making it available to others by technological means. A buyer can enjoy the unique physical iteration of the work, and has all of the rights associated with title mentioned above, but  may not appropriate the unique creative expression.

There are a number of reasons why an artist should communicate about copyright with a buyer. Copyright gives the artist the exclusive right, for example, to make use of copies of the original work for professional purposes. It is important that the buyer understand that the work is acquired subject to limitations. This effectively means that for the length of the copyright anyone must ask the artist for explicit permission to use the artwork in any way other than simply enjoying its possession. Typically this can be included in the invoice by stating that the artist reserves all rights to the artwork, and that the work may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission.

In the US, copyright is typically life of the creator plus seventy years. This means that not only does the creator have rights until the end of his or her life, but that the creator's estate continues to have control over the works for decades. In expectation of the increasing value that the electronic reproduction of works will generate, it is important to ensure that a buyer understands what they are getting, and that the artist understands and manages the value of works created.

Let the Buyer know that Works may be needed for Future Exhibitions

Keeping a record of who buys artwork will be imperative as an artist's career evolves. Gallerists, dealers, and museums will want to show the evolution of an artist's work and the historical context of production. Every early work that leaves the artist's hands is a puzzle piece that may have a lot of meaning to future professional partners. For this reason it is imperative that an artist keep records of what they have produced, but even more importantly, who the work has gone to. The invoice should contain as much unique identifying and contact information as possible.

In addition, it is valuable to signal to buyers that they take the piece subject to its use in future exhibitions. The invoice can include a term like "buyer agrees to make the artwork available upon reasonable request for exhibition at the artist's studio, and in galleries and museums, provided that such does not incur costs for the buyer, or that any such expenses are in the name of the borrowing party." While not a legal right that can be easily enforced against a buyer, it will put the buyer on notice that this can happen, and that they should be prepared to cooperate in good faith if they want the piece.

The Right of First Refusal

It is a longstanding practice that gallerists carefully control price increases to prevent radical shifts in the market which could be disastrous to an artist's career. To an emerging artist, this may or may not appear relevant. However, it is important to keep a watchful eye out for the moment when it is preferable to have a collector bring works back to an artist or gallerist before disposing of them on the open market.

The right of first refusal is a contractual provision, and does not enjoy the same kind of statutory protection that copyright has. This means that a court can look at the provision and balance it along and against other contractual claims. Nonetheless, an invoice could include a provision that states that "before the artwork held by the buyer or any transferee of the buyer may be sold or otherwise transferred, the artist or his or her assignee(s) shall have a right of first refusal to purchase the artwork."

Because it is impossible to predict when the re-sale of works could impact on an artist's career, there is no harm in including a right of refusal provision in invoices. You can always decline to exercise the right if there is no prejudice in doing so. If a buyer feels uncertain about the clause, an artist can point out that he or she only has the right to make the first offer or match any offer that the buyer has. It will not typically prevent the buyer from selling the work.

Conclusion

These are just a few invoice elements that can have a significant impact on an evolving career. As I tried to stress in the section on title transfer, applying the law does not mean a more confrontational relationship with buyers, but rather that important questions be discussed in a transparent and timely fashion.

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