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Gavin's Underground

Utah Lawyers For The Arts

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2012-08-23 -
While a lot of creative individuals will create works on a whim and put them out in public view just as quickly, many may not know the legality of their own creations or rights they have to their work. In fact, there are a lot of situations where musicians, artists, filmmakers and performers don't know what they can do with their work on the legal front such as copyrights, artist protection, rights of use and about a dozen other areas that could have repercussions down the road.
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From those very situations, an organization was created to help artists in need who can't afford high-priced council: Utah Lawyers For The Arts, a non-profit organization serving as an affordable source of legal advice from volunteer lawyers in the state of Utah for all artistic-related topics. Today, I'm chatting with one of those attorneys, Nicholas Wells, about his career, the organization and the work they do. (Photos courtesy of ULA and Nicholas Wells)

Nicholas Wells
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Gavin: Hey, Nick. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Nicholas: Well, I was raised in Salt Lake City, I worked in the software industry for years doing technical marketing and technical writing. I wrote a bunch of computer books that are now totally out of date. Then, in my mid-30s, I changed careers. We moved to Washington, D.C., where I went to law school, then returned to Utah and worked for a large firm in Salt Lake City. Because of my background in software, I gravitated toward intellectual-property work, but I’m not a patent attorney -- my degree was in linguistics, not engineering -- so I ended up focusing on copyright and trademark matters, which I really like. In 2008, we moved to New York. I worked at GE’s headquarters for a while, quit to start my own law firm in New York, then moved back to Utah in 2011 because, as I tell my friends in the New York area, the cost of living is much lower and the skiing is much better.

Gavin: What got you interested in working with law, and what really pushed you to want to become an attorney?

Nicholas: I had the chance to return to school in 2001 and was really interested in how government worked and in international relations. I thought that law school would be a good choice, and it was. I loved it. I considered going into government service but was pulled towards technology law and intellectual property because of my software background.

Gavin: Your undergrad was in linguistics. How does that fit in with everything else?

Nicholas: It doesn’t fit at all. I started out studying engineering, then tried physics, then English. I love studying languages but I didn’t necessarily want to teach a specific language. Linguistics is about how all languages are constructed, so that major let me learn bits and pieces of many languages in a structured way. Then I finished school and started working as a technical writer. Go figure.
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Gavin: Your undergrad was at the University of Utah, then you got an MBA at Brigham Young University. What made you choose George Washington University for law school?

Nicholas: Because I was interested in government and international affairs, I thought it would be a great place to study law. There is a lot of opportunity there. For example, we would hear about new laws like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and then Sen. Sarbanes would come and speak to our securities-regulation class. That’s hard to find anywhere else.

Gavin: You’ve moved around a lot in your career. What brought you back to Utah after law school and what sort of work did you do at the law firm you joined?

Nicholas: I suppose I’m restless. It’s exciting to try new things. But I was raised in Utah so I wanted to come back here; I like the lifestyle, I like the mountains and I like being near extended family. I snagged a position with Kirton & McConkie, now the largest firm in the state. That was lucky because I wasn’t a patent attorney and they normally only use patent attorneys for intellectual property work. But I ended up finding a niche and did a lot of work for the LDS Church. Some may not realize it, but the LDS Church does a huge amount of audiovisual programming, Internet-content development, work with museums, and so forth, as well as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s copyright issues, so I had a lot of great experience helping with all that.

Gavin: You actually quit the firm in 2008 and made a move to the New York area to work for General Electric. What kinds of things did you do at GE?

Nicholas: I was in the “trademarks and brand management” group, so I did a lot of things related to GE’s trademarks. They have so many businesses; it’s just a huge organization. But the fun part was the “brand management.” I worked on a lot of contracts with Olympic athletes and sponsorships, like the PGA Tour and other sports teams. I also did a lot with social-media promotions, Facebook projects and setting up major online sweepstakes. GE is very active in new media and I got to participate in a lot of that.

Gavin: When did you first hear about Utah Lawyers For The Arts, and what did you initially think of its program and what it was doing?

Nicholas: I learned about ULA through a friend at Artists of Utah, another arts organization that publishes a newsletter that I started writing legal pieces for. Utah Lawyers for the Arts was in transition. Heather Sneddon, an attorney at Anderson & Karrenberg, had just taken over the leadership of the organization and was looking for willing hands, so I was able to join the board, begin participating in seminars and generally help to make it a more active force in the community under Heather’s leadership. We’ve had several very strong attorneys join the board. We’ve also had great support from the Art Law Alliance at the University of Utah’s Law School.

Gavin: Explain what it is the ULA does and the services they provide.

Nicholas: ULA is a nonprofit founded in 1983 that works to educate artists and the community about legal issues that are tied to the arts, and to connect low-income artists and arts organizations who need legal assistance with qualified attorneys who are willing to provide it.
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Gavin: When you talk about artists, are there specific fields that ULA is interested in?

Nicholas: I would say we’re interested in “the arts” in the broadest sense of the term. Of course, we work with visual artists, but some of our board members are also experts in music law; I work a lot with authors, publishers and filmmakers. We try to find the right attorney to help in any related areas, whether it’s choreography, sculpture or storytelling.

Gavin: Since joining up, what are some areas you've been able to help people with that they may not realize they needed help in?

Nicholas: The one that I most often see people neglect is contracts -- they don’t document their agreements. Even a handwritten, one-page statement of what you’re agreeing on is better than a handshake and a smile -- although I’d recommend something more formal than the handwriting on a napkin. It’s not that everyone is deceitful, but they remember things differently over time. A written document, the more detailed the better, helps avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings about who has what rights and what obligations. Other than that, most of what I see is people who have some idea of what they need but don’t know how to go about getting it. They want to start selling their art, they want to register their copyrights, they want to do a deal with a gallery or a production company. They’re not sure how to get started and they’re nervous about working with a lawyer, even though they realize they probably should.

Gavin: For some people, getting an attorney may feel like an unnecessary step or a hassle when dealing with their creations, and they may feel they can settle it on their own. What would you say to those who may not want to consider getting legal advice from an attorney?

Nicholas: The law is both complicated and very specialized. Just as an example, I wouldn’t prepare my own will or do my own real estate transaction. It’s not my area of the law and I would hope my real estate attorney wouldn’t file a trademark application. Hiring the right lawyer lets an expert protect your interests much better than you can yourself. It can be expensive, but I see it as an investment to avoid larger problems later on; you have to look at the value of what you’re trying to protect. And where the cost of a lawyer is a concern, that’s where ULA comes in. The other challenge is that legal issues are not “front of mind” for artists. They want to create, they want to get their work in front of people, but they don’t think about -- or they don’t want to think about -- the legal protections and the legal risks that are part of that process, especially where art intersects with business. It’s a distraction from their real goals, and I completely understand that. And yet, as an artist, your lawyer is trying to protect your work so that you can control how it’s used, prevent misuse and, hopefully, even earn enough money that you can continue to create.

Gavin: How does the ULA go about finding attorneys who are experts in these kinds of matters who can dedicate their time pro bono? And what kind of a challenge is it for you to keep a healthy list of attorneys on board?

Nicholas: We find that there are a lot of attorneys willing to help out on small projects where they know that a little good advice will really help an artist. Through our website, seminars, and word of mouth, we’re always “recruiting” to add to our list of attorneys who are qualified in areas where we need expertise. The trouble has often been helping the two sides find each other while removing both sides’ fears of being taken advantage of. Our application process is intended to do that. We review the attorney’s areas of expertise and we ask artists to submit an application to evaluate what the artist needs and the appropriate level of support that one of our attorneys can provide. In some cases, it won’t be a pro bono project, but in every case, we hope that the artist will feel confidence in the attorney’s qualifications and that the attorney won’t be concerned that the artist is expecting the world without understanding the costs of longer-term legal representation.

Gavin: Considering some of the procedures you end up seeing, how often are they easily dealt with and how often do you find yourself fighting the long battle for the artist's rights?

Nicholas: Most disputes can be handled much more easily if they’re dealt with early on. The long battle, a court case, is so expensive and is such a distraction from an artist’s real work that we always try to avoid that by seeking a fair solution. Sometimes, all that’s required is sitting down with both sides and helping them understand how the law works and the fair expectations of each side; other times, it requires a heavier hand to protect the artist’s rights. And I would say that’s becoming more of a concern all the time with online uses of copyrighted work. But there is an escalating scale of effort -- discussions, letters and so forth -- before you’re going to end up in court. That’s actually very rare.
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Gavin: For those interested, what's the process like for someone to apply for your help and what specific areas can you help artists with?

Nicholas: It’s pretty easy, just visit our website. On the Artists tab there is a description of the process, a link to an online application form with 20 questions, and another link to pay the application fee -- $20 for individuals; $30 for arts organizations. Once you submit an application, give us a couple of weeks to review it and, if appropriate, find the lawyer among our network who is most qualified to help.

Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Nicholas: Maybe this is the obvious part: I’d love to have more attorneys with experience in the arts sign up as part of our network. Beyond that, everyone should keep an eye on our website for news about future seminars on legal issues and the arts. Last spring, we did seminars on documentaries, publishing and music. Others are in the planning stages and are a great opportunity to learn more about these issues.


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