When you get hired by a new client, entering into a contract is a good thing. This document is a way for both parties to be clear about their obligations to each other. It will include a description of the work, how and when it is to be delivered to the client, and how much the freelancer will be paid for the work.
The contract should also deal with rights to the work. In many, but not all, cases, once the client pays you for your work, they own it outright. Sometimes you will be selling the rights to your work for a certain length of time or for a specific purpose (first serial rights, one time rights, online rights), and this needs to be set out as well.
I have worked with clients without signing a formal contract, though. Since I communicate with them by e-mail or IM, I have a record of what we have agreed to, and this information would probably be sufficient to prove that we have an enforceable contract. Here’s where I wonder whether insisting on a formal contract before you start working really gives you the security you are looking for.
While the contract is helpful in setting out terms and conditions, if the other party doesn’t live up to their end of the bargain you need to be prepared to take action to enforce it. If the amount in question is relatively small and/or your client lives in another province, state, or country, how will you deal with collecting what you are owed? You would have to decide whether it is worth the trouble to go after them legally.
I think that getting the details of the job set out in writing is a good thing and that if someone is willing to sign a contract chances are very good that they will honor its terms. It gives the freelancer some sense of security, but you also need to consider how far you would be willing to go to collect if you don’t get paid as agreed.
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