Thursday, October 29, 2015

Paying By The Numbers

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.  

Dear GG Arts Law:

A presenter is refusing to pay one of our artists who has an O-1 visa, but does not have a Social Security Number. Does a foreign artist who is performing in the U.S. under an O-1 also have to get a Social Security number in order to get paid?

Many presenters and venues—particularly those affiliated with university or other academic institutions—have an affinity for imposing arbitrary policies and procedures and insisting that they are legal requirements. To be fair, many of those presenters and venues are merely passing along edicts that have been dictated to them by other departments and offices within their labyrinthine institutions who are more familiar with hiring snow plow services than with engaging non-U.S. artists.

Non-U.S. artists are not required to obtain anything other than an appropriate artist visa (usually, but not always, either an O or a P visa) in order to be authorized to perform legally in the U.S. Whilst it is not uncommon for presenters and venues to insist that a non-U.S. artist have either a Social Security Number (“SSN”) or the SSN’s evil twin, an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (“ITIN”), as an additional condition for an artist to be paid, that is not a legal requirement. More often than not, it is merely a requirement of the presenter or venue’s finance department or booking software which cannot physically write a check without having either a SSN or ITIN. Provided the artist has an appropriate artist visa, he or she is legally permitted to be paid and, unless there is an express contractual provision to the contrary, the presenter is legally required to honor an engagement contract and to pay the artist for services performed.

SSNs and ITINs have absolutely nothing to do with work authorization or immigration law. Rather, they are creatures affiliated with U.S. tax obligations and tax returns. An artist will need either an SSN or an ITIN to file a U.S. tax return, which artists are required to do—especially if they want a refund of any engagement fees that might have been subject to 30% withholding. However, if the artist elects not to file a U.S. return and just let the IRS keep their money, that's entirely at the discretion of the artist. The failure or an artist to have a SSN or ITIN cannot be used as an excuse by a presenter or venue to pay the artist or otherwise honor a valid engagement contract.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Never Play Chess With Pigeons

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.  

Dear GG Arts Law: 

I’ve been asked sign a bad performance review with a number of inaccuracies. Can I be fired if I don’t sign it? Or should I insist that it be amended to reflect the truth? Our Executive Director is very emotional and hard to deal with, but I’m thinking that I should at least try and sit down and get her to change her mind rather than just give in.    

Unless you have an employment contract—or, in some cases, an employee manual—that specifically sets forth the circumstances and conditions under which you can be terminated, then it probably doesn’t matter whether you sign it or not. Many states, such as the State of New York, are what are referred to as “employment at will” states. You would need to check the laws in your specific state. However, “employment at will” means that an employer can pretty much hire and fire as he or she pleases and a discharged employee usually will have no legal recourse even when the discharge is unfair or unreasonable. The only exceptions would be termination based on statutorily defined discrimination—such as race, religion, gender, age, or disability. (Certain more enlightened jurisdictions, such as New York City, also include sexual orientation and marital status in this list.) Other than that, an employer in an “employment at will” state can walk in one day and fire anyone for any reason. In other words, unless one of the exceptions apply, you can be fired whether you sign the bad review or not.

Ideally, it would great if you could correct the record. A bad review that indicates you failed to follow instructions or disregarded office policies could negatively impact your eligibility for unemployment compensation should you be fired. However, correcting the record may not always be practical or realistic.

If your boss is “very emotional and hard to deal with”, you are not alone. There is no shortage in our industry of exceptionally talented and creative individuals who, nonetheless, should be heavily medicated. Many of these souls find themselves unfettered and autonomously in charge of distinguished arts organizations and businesses.

I am constantly amazed at how many people cling to the belief that a logical argument, persuasive reasoning, or “the right words” will magically transform an otherwise irrational person into Socrates. In fact, whether you are negotiating a contract or trying to mollify an artist, attempting to reason with an emotional or irrational person is like playing chess with a pigeon: it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, the pigeon is still going to knock over all the pieces and poop on the chess board. Getting such a person to admit he or she is wrong about anything will only be met with defensiveness, paranoia, reminders of how you should be more appreciative of their past largess with regard to your past transgressions (most of which you will have never been told about before), and accusations that you are being argumentative, not a team player, exasperating, and disrespectful.

The best, and only, way to begin any conversation with someone being unreasonable or emotional, and who also happens to be in charge, is to validate, never confront. Assuming you want to remain employed, you need to accept that your boss “owns reality” at the moment and learn to live and work within that fantasy land. You don’t have to admit the facts to admit that your boss’s perception that you have done a poor job or failed to meet expectations is a perception you are enthusiastically willing to correct. Like a bad review of a concert or performance, thank the critic and then move on.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

When It Comes To Visas, Plan For The Worst and Hope For The Best

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.   

Dear GG Arts Law:

We got our P visa for a group returned because it included the tour manager. USCIS is saying we need to file a separate petition and get a separate union letter for him. But USCIS has approved prior P petitions with everyone on the same petition. Is this something new? This would mean another petition and another union fee. Also, we have heard that USCIS is taking 8 weeks to review petitions. Is this true? The group cannot afford to premium processing fees for two petitions.

It’s almost impossible to choose amongst the many frustrating aspects of the U.S. immigration laws pertaining to visas for artists and performers. The high fees for poor service? Having to provide documentation that The New York Times is a “major publication”? Trying to explain to a USCIS examiner that an orchestral conductor is, in fact, a “lead role”? The regulatory presumption that the U.S. Government (which has never significantly supported any artistic endeavor ever since Abraham Lincoln died in a theater) is in a better position that an artistic director to determine who is and who is not a “distinguished artist”?  However, it’s the unpredictability of the entire process that most people fail to appreciate with sufficient magnitude.   

It has always been the rule that a petition for a P-1 visa can only include the actual performers in the group. Any support staff—tour managers, general directors, production managers, stage crew, administrative personnel, and even artistic directors and choreographers (unless they will also be performing)—must be listed on a separate petition for a P-1S visa. Unless someone is actually performing in front of the audience, do not list them as part of a P-1 petition. 

The frustration in your case is that the USCIS apparently approved your prior P-1 visa petitions where you included the group’s tour manager on the same petition as the performers. While this saved you both time and money in the past, it was also a mistake on the part of the USCIS. It’s not uncommon for USCIS to treat similar petitions or even prior petitions from the same artist or group inconsistently, approving some and rejecting others. The problem, in addition to poorly trained, underpaid, and overworked USCIS examiners, is that unlike other legal proceedings—and, yes, filing a visa petition constitutes a legal proceeding just like filing a lawsuit—USCIS is not bound by the precedence of its own prior decisions, actions, or mistakes. In other words, just because USCIS overlooked an evidentiary requirement or interpreted an immigration regulation a certain way in the past does not mean they are under any obligation to do so in the future. Even if they approved a visa for an artist or group in the past does not mean they have to do so again. Under U.S. immigration law, USCIS is always free to apply the rules as strictly as they wish, ask for additional documentation, or even determine that a prior visa petition should not have been approved.

The “take away” from this is that you should never assume that simply doing everything you did last time will result in the same outcome. Always prepare every visa petition for every artist and every group as if it was the artist or group’s first petition, paying particular attention to understanding and satisfying all of the regulations and evidentiary requirements regardless of how absurd or inconvenient. Take no shortcuts. Overkill. Overkill. Overkill. This includes making sure that the immigration rules and procedures have not changed since you last prepared and filed a visa petition. USCIS frequently changes filing fees and updates its forms with little notice unless you go looking for it.

For example, earlier this year, USCIS updated the Form I-129 that is required for an O or P visa petition. Guess what? THEY JUST UPDATED IT AGAIN!!!  That’s right, effective August 13, 2015, there is an even newer new I-129 form. At some yet to be announced date, any petitions using any version prior to August 13, 2015 will be rejected. So you might as well start using the new form now. If you prepared a visa petition last year and tried to use the same form, it would be returned.

Always begin a visa petition by getting the newest version of the USCIS forms directly from the USCIS website:  DO NOT USE FORMS FROM ANY OTHER SOURCE AS THEY MAY BE OUTDATED. will also be your best source for any new filing fees or other updates.

For instance, were you aware that effective August 30, 2015, you will no longer be able to upgrade pending petitions to premium processing on-line? Now you are. After August 30, 2015, all premium processing forms will require physical paper I-907 forms to be sent physically to USCIS.

As for the processing times: Yes, USCIS (particularly the Vermont Service Center) is experiencing a significant backlog of 8 weeks or more for standard processing. This could change again over the next few months, but right now it is taking an outrageous amount of time. Unlike forms, never rely on the processing times posted by the USCIS Service Center themselves. They are notoriously inaccurate and misleading. Always assume that unless you have paid the additional USCIS Premium Processing Fee, a petition will take a minimum of 4 – 6 weeks and plan accordingly.

In addition to, your best source of current updates and information should be and other official sources of vetted information. An artist’s or group’s performance should be too important to trust to gossip or anecdotal surveys.   

In your situation, there’s no way to avoid having to file a separate P-1S petition for the group’s Tour Manager. That’s the law and always has been. However, if your group cannot afford premium processing and they will be performing for a non-profit or educational institution, then contacting a U.S. Senator or member of Congress can “sometimes” be helpful under the right conditions, including the particular political leanings of the Senator or member of Congress. If the stars and moons align, the Senator or member of Congress can contact USCIS and request an emergency expedite on your behalf. 

A Tribute To Copyright Infringement

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.   

Dear Brian and Robyn: 

Could you please advise how a copyright application would be filed for a tribute musical of deceased popular singer? The show would consist of all of his songs. Would it be better to file it as a compilation or concert? Can all the songs be included in one application? Thank you

Is this, by any chance, the long awaited musical “Indian Love Call”, a tribute to the intoxicating sounds of Slim Whitman? I heard there’s a lost studio recording somewhere featuring Slim Whitman, Tiny Tim, Axl Rose, and Celine Dion performing a cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It would make a great Act I finale.

For most musicals, a copyright registration application would include the book, music, and lyrics written by the authors. However, tribute musicals such as Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, All Shook Up and Beautiful, which are also known as “jukebox” musicals, are different in that they typically feature works which has been previously performed and composed by others. The authors and creators of such musicals must license all the music from the original composer or composers. This gives them the rights to use the music and lyrics in the musical, and usually to record a cast album, but gives the creators of the musical no ownership rights in the individual works themselves. You cannot claim copyright ownership, or file a copyright registration, with regard to any material that is not original or which you do not either own or create yourself.

Producing a tribute musical about a singer can pose a number of additional challenges in that, unless the singer also wrote the music he sang, you would need to obtain licenses from the publishers and composers of the songs the singer performed. In addition, the name, appearance, or costume of the deceased singer might be considered trademarks controlled by his estate.

If your production is a scripted musical (ie: with a story, plot and characters), as opposed to a concert, then you could claim a copyright in the book and spoken dialogue, and, perhaps, the order in which the music was performed, but not in the music and lyrics themselves. Even arrangements or orchestrations would need to be licensed from the original composers and could not be included in your copyright registration unless your license agreement permitted you to do so.  If your production is actually more of a tribute concert, then there may actually be very little you can copyright or own.

The whole point of registering a copyright is to claim ownership and stop others from copying or infringing your work. However, in the field of tribute performances, there may actually be more the publishers or composers of the music and the estate of a deceased singer can do to stop you than you can do to stop others. Remember, a “tribute” is not a magic word that means “copyright or license free.” The entertainment field is littered with the carcasses of concerts and performances that were stopped because the subject of a tribute did not like, want, or approve the gesture. In any artistic venture, before investing the time, talent, and energy it takes to create and protect your work, you first want to make sure you are not improperly using the time, talent, and energy of other artists that came before you. 

Advice for the Young and Restless

By Robyn Guilliams

Earlier this year, GG Arts Law and GG International was in the process of hiring a new administrative assistant.  As I’ was reviewing applications, I’m sad to say that I was shocked – shocked! – at the very poor quality of some of the cover letters and resumes we’ve received. 
So, as a public service to all of you young’uns out there who are searching for a job in the performing arts field, or for those of you who already work in the arts and would like to move up the ladder as quickly as possible, I’d like to offer a bit of advice – some pitfalls to avoid – when submitting a cover letter and resume to a potential employer:
  • Spelling errors:  This is the most prevalent problem, and the one that is most easily remedied.  Do not rely on spell-check, people!  Proof-read your letter and resume, and then proof them again.  I realize we all make the occasional spelling mistake (my own emails are proof of this), but the documents you submit as your job application are the only criteria by which you are judged for a job, at least initially.  If you won’t take the time to proof-read your letter and resume, this tells me everything I need to know about what kind of employee you will be.  When I see these types of errors, the letter and resume immediately go into the recycling bin.

  • Writing Style:  The ability to write well is required for many jobs in our industry.  (And even if not, it’s a great skill to have!)  A number of the cover letters we’ve received, while not being grammatically incorrect, are very awkwardly written.  I highly recommend “The Elements of Style”, by William Strunk and E.B. White, to anyone wishing to improve his or her writing skills.  This book is a great resource for young professionals who want to learn to communicate more effectively through writing.

  • Irrelevant Job Experience:  Tailor your resume to the job for which you’re applying.  There is no reason to include work experience that is completely irrelevant.   For instance, don’t include in your “employment history” your job as a bag-boy at Piggly Wiggly when you were 14 years old.  I don’t care.  Don’t tell me about working as a ball-girl for your college softball team.  Seriously.  Nothing about that work experience is going to make me say, “This is the person we’ve been looking for!”

  • Try to keep your resume to one page.  Unless your professional career began at age eight, you probably don’t have enough relevant content to justify a longer resume.  Keep in mind – there’s no need to write a long narrative describing the responsibilities of each of your jobs.  Bullet points will do.  And, please, please, don’t use an 8-point font in an effort to cram everything on to one page.  I’m old, and I can’t read anything written in an 8-point font unless I hold the page an inch from my face.  I don’t like doing this.  It’s annoying, and it makes me feel old.

  • Don’t include the details of your entire professional life in your cover letter.  This is why you attach a resume.  Pick a few items from your resume that are directly relevant to the job for which you are applying, and include a detail or two about each experience.  Your cover letter should be no more than three paragraphs, and should be concise.  As I’m reviewing 150 letters and resumes, and I come across your two-page, ten-paragraph cover letter, I’ll want to stick a fork in my eye.  I already don’t like you.  (This really isn’t the reaction you’re looking for from your potential employer, is it??)

  • Avoid hyperbole in your cover letter.  Don’t tell me about your “extensive” experience in whatever.  If you are in your early twenties, it’s highly unlikely that you have extensive experience in anything.  (See above regarding the one-page resume.)  Along the same lines, don’t tell me about your “professionalism”, “strong work ethic” or “integrity”.  I see these descriptions so often that they’re virtually meaningless.  And don’t describe yourself as “an ideal fit” or “exceptionally qualified” (particularly when you are not at all qualified).  Your resume will speak for itself in this regard.

  • Don’t describe yourself as “detail-oriented” in your cover letter.  (This goes over especially badly when your letter is riddled with typos.)  When applying for a job, everyone describes themselves as detail-oriented.  Who the heck is going to say “I’m not so great with details”?  I can get an idea of your attention to detail from how carefully you’ve crafted your resume and cover letter, the types of jobs you’ve held in the past, and your responsibilities in those jobs. 

  • In your cover letter, there’s no need to write about how “passionate” you are about the arts, how much you love going to the theater, or that Beethoven’s Eroica is your favorite musical work.  This is not your OkCupid profile.  Everyone goes into our field because we feel strongly about the arts, and we wouldn’t be happy working in any other field.  Your education, work history and other relevant experiences will show that you are committed to a career in the arts!    
Although we were sad to say goodbye to our former assistant, Ann, we were lucky to find an amazing new person. Turns out a professional stage manager was just want we needed to manage traffic control around here. Welcome Christina!