Protecting Your Creative Vision

Christian Williams
Each month, over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.


Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with Christian Williams, founder and managing attorney of Bevel Law. Through her work at Bevel, Christian – who has a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a juris doctor from Harvard Law School -- makes it her mission to help businesses and nonprofits legally secure what they are building and the vision they are trying to create! Christian's own story of taking a leap of faith to create something new for her life is inspiring and powerful. She boldly moves through the world with purpose to give hope and inspiration to our future.

I found it important to talk with Christian about the legalities of being an artist, covering topics such as contracts and copyrights because these matters can be very intimidating for creatives but are also very necessary as we look to protect our work and scale our businesses.

About our Guest!

Christian Williams
Christian Williams

Christian Williams is the founder and managing attorney of Bevel Law, through which she makes it her mission to help businesses and nonprofits legally secure the vision they are trying to create!

Lo Harris: What was the inception of Bevel Law? What inspired you to start your own law firm?


Christian Williams: I was born in Los Angeles. I was raised outside of Washington, DC and I feel like the origin story could go so far back even to the very beginning to my parents. My dad is an engineer. And my mom is a classically trained dancer and had a successful dance career. And she had a fashion career. And so, I have always had these two kinds of perspectives in my life -- my dad's professional career and then my mom's creative career. But as I grew older, I felt like okay, it's probably the professional career for me that's going to pay the bills. I'm not actually good enough to make it on the creative side. And so, I ended up going to law school. And like a lot of people, I’m not independently wealthy. And so, I took out school loans. So, by the time I walked out of law school, I had a lot of debt. And so, I was like, well, I need to go figure out a way to pay off this debt. So, I went into corporate law. I came back home. I got a job in DC downtown working at a big law firm.


And I was like, great, I've got the nice fancy job. I'm gonna be able to pay off these loans. And then after that I’ll be able to do what I really want to do which is to help people. So that was my plan -- work for corporate, pay off the debt, and then go do what I really want to do. And it was maybe 30 days into that job, and I was just like, I made a mistake. This is not me. It's not the right fit. I don't like being trapped in an office. I don't like wearing suits.


I was one month into this career. I was in all this debt. And it was like, this was the wrong call. But I didn't know what else to do because I had put everything into being this. And so, I worked there for a couple years. I was always thinking about what else I could do. I decided to leave my corporate law job, and at the time I was interested in producing. And so, when I originally left corporate law, I wanted to start a production company. It was a good idea. Unfortunately, it was the worst possible timing because it was the end of 2019.


So, I walk out of my stable corporate job at the end of 2019 having no idea what is about to happen in three months. I'm working with a friend on our very first project, and in January, I'm excited. In February. I'm starting to hear some news coming out of China. And by March, it's over. Dead on arrival. Everything is shut down. Worst possible timing to try to start anything. It was devastating.


But I just didn't want to go back. I had all this forward momentum and it just seemed like I got to do something with this momentum. And I decided, well, if I can't do this, I'm still a lawyer, maybe there's a way to combine these things. And instead of doing what I used to do, I could be a lawyer in an area that I'm interested in. And that is how Bevel Law was born.


LH: You are this person who chose an unconventional path and now you're working with and creating content to advise and inspire other folks who are taking an unconventional path. When working with clients -- especially women, non-binary folx, people of color --  clients who may have gotten used to hearing “no” or “not now,”when it comes to following their dreams, do you have a specific approach when it comes to disarming their concerns and nourishing that entrepreneurial spirit through your practice?


CW: I think my approach is just empathy. I get it. In my own personal life, I have really had to separate out honoring the people who came before me, honoring my ancestors, but also recognizing that I don't have their same limitations. And so, some of their advice – they’re completely meant with love and care – but if I followed those things, I would be living in a box that I just don't have to live in.


Many times, I'll get on the phone with somebody and they're like, you know, I want to protect this [idea], but I also feel guilty about it.


LH: Did they elaborate?


CW: On one hand, they're like, Yeah, this was my idea. But then immediately, they have self-doubt. And they're like, well, maybe I wasn't really first. Do I really have the right to say that this is mine and that nobody else can use it? And that's when I take off the lawyer hat and I put on the sister hat or the friend hat and say, why not you?


I think that as people of color, women, non-binary, we feel like we need to have the whole package -- the box, the tissue, paper, the bow on top -- and then we feel like it's legit, and we can take it to somebody. Whereas other people haven't even bought the box yet and they're, like, lock it down!


LH: I noticed on your [Instagram] page, you do a very good job of having all of these explanatory Reels, resources, and infographics. What benefits do you see from sharing so much valuable information with your followers?


CW: I would say that there are two goals. There's a lot of people out there, especially a lot of creatives, who might not be able to afford to hire my law firm. And so, it's my way of giving back to the community. I can't take everybody as a pro bono client, but I can share information. And then on the business side, other people, like accountants or other lawyers will stumble upon the page and a lot of times they'll send people my way. What I do is super niche and so they'll be like, Oh, hey, I'm a lawyer, too, but I don't do this niche. Can you help my client?


LH: What are some common misconceptions that creative people might have about what it means to protect their work and their business through copyrights, trademarks, and LLCs?


CW: One of the ones that I'm constantly trying to debunk is people have this poor man's copyright or poor man's trademark. People say, Oh, if you want to protect something, put it in an envelope and mail it to yourself. They'll say mail it to yourself because then it'll get stamped by the United States Postal Service, which is a federal entity, and that's a poor man's trademark or poor man's copyright -- which is completely false!


Also, regarding automatic copyright. It’s true that when original work is created, that is the moment that copyright is created. Now, unfortunately, just because copyright exists, doesn't mean you can actually do anything about it. So, the tricky thing with copyright is that you can end up in a weird position where you own the copyright legally, but unless it gets officially registered with the government, usually you can't actually do anything about it, meaning you couldn't actually bring a lawsuit if you need it to protect your copyright.


LH: What if you're an artist who's very prolific, especially a digital artist, and you publish a ton of work? Do you have to register every single artwork?


CW: This actually has a lot of historical classist context to it. But the good news is that if you are what would traditionally be considered a fine artist -- so we're talking sculpture, paintings --  those traditional art forms have been protected by copyright law actually a lot longer, and the office is a lot better about creating ways for people to batch copyrights together so that you can do several at a time. For example, a new option came out where photographers can register 750 photographs at the same time. But unfortunately, going back to my comment about classism, for the less traditionally classical forms of art, it has been much harder to protect the copyright.


LH: What sort of legal counsel would you recommend to a digital creator who maybe has a substantial social media following and if you're talking to a large brand and they're commissioning you to create something? Is it advised that you withhold from doing work-for-hire that grants them full rights in perpetuity?


CW: The biggest thing I would say is to see if they can talk to a lawyer. I think that in the creative community, people just kind of assume they can't afford a lawyer. But a lot of law firms offer free first consultations and a lot of law firms today are willing to work with people, willing to do things at a flat fee, willing to do payment plans. There are so many options. Even if, at the end of the day, you can't afford to hire the whole law firm experience, a lot of times you can call and just get a crucial piece of information that's going to be so helpful for you in your next deal or when you're trying to negotiate with that big brand and you're trying to figure out should I sign or should I not?


LH: Are there other ways that entrepreneurs and artists can benefit from seeking legal counsel?


CW: I've also seen other lawyers who offer DIY kits. So if you can't, or if you don't want to hire the lawyer, they can give you a kit or a template so that you can figure out how to do these things on your own.


LH: Are there state limitations on what lawyers you can work with? Would you be able to work with me as an artist based in New York, if you're in DC?


CW: It depends on what people need. For the work I do, that's trademark and copyright, that’s specifically federal law. So, it is uniform in all 50 states and so it enables me to work with people in other states. But there's other stuff where it really does need to be specific. So, for example, if you're getting a divorce, that is state specific law. You can't get a divorce attorney from some other state. Another example is real estate. So, if you're looking to lock down a commercial lease in New York, that's going to be New York specific law for that commercial lease.


LH: I think another thing that will be useful for any commercial illustrators is maybe running through terms that they might see in a contract just to understand what they mean. “Perpetuity” is like a big one.


CW: If you're licensing something in perpetuity, that means forever. If a brand is asking for perpetuity, a really fair question is do they really need that? For example, if this is maybe a one-time promo for a special launch, maybe perpetuity doesn't make sense. You don't have to be a lawyer to sometimes ask is there something else that is reasonable that everyone else could be happy with that involves me giving up less.


In life, whether it's doing a specific deal or whether it's other things that come up as an entrepreneur, it never hurts to ask. The worst thing people can say is no.


Follow Christian Williams on Instagram @bevellaw.

lo harris poses with her choice illustration markers

Lo Harris is an NYC-based artist, educator and children’s book illustrator who champions vibrance, confidence and joy.

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