Counsel for Creatives
January 27, 2015
Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts provides legal assistance to Portland’s vibrant arts community.
The music ensemble known as Venerable Showers of Beauty has long been a part of the Lewis & Clark community, bringing together students, alumni, and curious Portlanders to play a set of traditional Javanese instruments called a gamelan.
But a few years back, ensemble director Mindy Johnston B.A. ’97 started thinking about using the gamelan to build communities beyond Palatine Hill.
“I see it as a tool for connecting people as an ensemble,” she explains. “I wanted to be out facilitating gamelan workshops in prisons and other places where community-building could be beneficial.”
To do that, Johnston needed to obtain nonprofit status for Venerable Showers of Beauty. The ensemble had always operated as a campus group—one toward which Lewis & Clark had been “extremely supportive,” Johnston says. But without a tax exemption and fiscal independence, the group was limited in what it could do.
“Becoming a nonprofit started to make sense, both to the Lewis & Clark administration and to us,” says Johnston.
What made less sense was the application for federal tax-exempt status. Johnston, like many applicants, found the paperwork complicated and intimidating. “I’d read a question and have no idea how to deal with it, so I’d just put the application aside and months would pass,” she remembers.
Johnston finally broke free from this frustrating cycle thanks to a budding Lewis & Clark–rooted nonprofit called Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. The organization, which emerged from an older nonprofit in 2012 through the efforts of a group of Lewis & Clark Law School students, runs a clinic that gives artists low-cost legal help on issues ranging from nonprofit formation to copyright infringement. It also offers educational workshops on law topics relevant to creative professionals. In an age when new technologies and intellectual property issues frequently intersect—and in a city teeming with creatives— OVLA’s inception comes at just the right time and place.
“The legal landscape is getting really complicated,” says Sean Clancy J.D. ’14, one of the students behind OVLA’s emergence. “A group like this didn’t exist, and it was needed.”
Clancy should know. Before coming to Lewis & Clark, the Seattle native worked as a filmmaker, writing and producing a number of short films and serving as a script/continuity supervisor for features. His experiences as a creative professional—like the time he nearly signed away the rights to his screenplay—exposed the future attorney to the kinds of legal issues—and legal costs—that artists face.
Clancy pursued his interest in these issues at Lewis & Clark, studying business and intellectual property law and becoming a leader of the Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Law student group. In 2011, he and fellow group members Mark Banner J.D. ’14, Amber Buker J.D. ’14, Ken Katzaroff J.D. ’14, and Aaron Gonzales started talking about establishing a Portland-based organization modeled after the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts groups that exist in several other states. Clancy soon approached Lydia Loren, Robert E. Jones Professor of Advocacy and Ethics, for advice.
The areas of law that intersect with art are not intuitive, and there’s lots of swirling misinformation on the Internet. People sometimes get these really wrong ideas about what the law is, and those misconceptions impede their creativity.Lydia Loren, Robert E. Jones Professor of Advocacy and Ethics
“I told him, ‘I agree; affordable, one-on-one legal services are sorely lacking in Oregon,’” Loren recalls. As an intellectual property expert—and the daughter of a sculptor—Loren possesses a keen appreciation for artists’ legal needs.
“The areas of law that intersect with art are not intuitive, and there’s lots of swirling misinformation on the Internet,” she says. “People sometimes get these really wrong ideas about what the law is, and those misconceptions impede their creativity.”
Loren helped connect Clancy and his classmates with Northwest Lawyers and Artists, a loosely organized group of attorneys led by Kohel Haver J.D. ’82 that offered artists lawyer referrals and other services, but not direct counseling. Captivated by the students’ vision, the organization became a key partner, supplying volunteer lawyers for OVLA’s earliest clinics. By 2013, NWLA had essentially been reborn as OVLA.
Loren also assisted Clancy and company in forging strong ties between OVLA and Lewis & Clark Law School. Since 2013, Lewis & Clark’s Small Business Legal Clinic has housed and provided administrative support for the OVLA clinic. In turn, OVLA’s clinic offers Lewis & Clark law students the opportunity to observe real-world legal counseling. Clancy sat in on a number of clinic sessions as a student. “It was one of the first times when I saw directly how I could apply my legal education,” he remembers.
OVLA’s partnership with Lewis & Clark has lent the young organization the legitimizing imprimatur it needed to serve as a “cross-pollination platform” for artists, attorneys, and law students, Clancy observes. “Having the school’s fingerprints all over OVLA allows us to convene diverse stakeholders.”
Lewis & Clark also helped incubate the emerging nonprofit via the college’s Venture Competition, which Clancy and his peers took part in during 2013. Though the team didn’t win the competition, Clancy says that simply participating helped them refine and better articulate their organization’s concept. “It was a good process to go through in terms of facing reality,” he reflects. “It forced us to get really specific about what we wanted our organization to do.”
Today, Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts puts on a legal clinic nearly every month, as well as occasional seminars on subjects such as the federal Visual Artists Rights Act. The organization has 25 lawyers on its clinic volunteer list, including specialists in contract, entertainment, and patent law. Pro bono work is part of legal culture, but attorneys who choose to contribute their services to OVLA typically do so out of some connection to the arts, says Loren, who currently serves as the organization’s president.
A lot of artists are trying to make a living from their work, but they don’t know the details of the law. OVLA gives them a way to protect themselves.Windy Wahlke, OVLA Client
“Either they’re artists, they’ve got family members who are artists, or they’re just patrons of the arts,” she says. “We get lots of different lawyers for lots of different reasons, but for all of them, volunteering is about the desire for a vibrant arts community.”
The OVLA clinic has served more than 50 artists to date, from musicians to filmmakers to playwrights. They bring issues as rare as art neglect and as common as contract disputes. “Oftentimes, it’s nuts-and-bolts business stuff like bookkeeping or taxes,” says Clancy, who now serves on OVLA’s board and works at Day & Koch, a Portland law firm representing creative clients. “It’s helping artists see the business aspects of what they’re doing.”
For Johnston, the Venerable Showers of Beauty director, OVLA provided security. For months, she’d been shuffling the paperwork for getting the ensemble nonprofit status, worried one wrong answer could result in a time-wasting rejection. “Getting a denial letter, after all those months of working and waiting, would be very deflating,” she says.
Finally, at the end of 2013, Johnston met with an attorney at an OVLA clinic; incidentally, it was Kohel Haver, the NWLA leader. After an initial consultation, Haver helped Johnston obtain a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant to continue getting his assistance on the tax-exemption application. On August 22, 2014, Johnston received a determination letter from the IRS: “We are pleased to inform you …”
“To have Kohel guide us in answering questions legally was super helpful,” Johnston says. “I’m pretty sure I would still be shuffling around the paperwork if it had not been for that guidance.”
Another former OVLA client, Windy Wahlke, contacted the organization after she started worrying that her Portland-based Fleetwood Mac cover band, Gold Dust, was at risk of copyright infringement.
“When you’re doing a tribute band, there’s a lot of gray area,” explains Wahlke (on stage, “Stevie Nicks”). At what point does tribute become transgression? Internet research only blurred the legal lines. “I was putting up YouTube videos and stuff like that, thinking, ‘I don’t want to get in trouble—and how much trouble can I get in?’”
Wahlke found clarity at her OVLA clinic session, where a lawyer gave her information about cover-band-related legal precedent and talked with her about what would happen if Gold Dust did get a cease-and-desist letter from Fleetwood Mac’s attorneys. “I left the session feeling like, ‘OK, I’ve got information, so now I know what the risks are and what I’m getting myself into,’” the singer says.
Wahlke was so impressed with OVLA that she agreed to serve as the organization’s board secretary.
“They’re doing a service for the local arts,” she says. “A lot of artists are trying to make a living from their work, but they don’t know the details of the law. OVLA gives them a way to protect themselves by getting information straight from the mouth of a lawyer.”
Loren takes this idea one step further. By backing up local artists, she argues, OVLA is strengthening Portland as a whole.
“A lively arts scene keeps a city alive,” she says. “And part of that lively arts scene includes having a place for artists to get answers when legal issues crop up. The mere existence of this entity lets artists know we’re here for them.”
Jonathan Frochtzwajg B.A. ’09 is a freelance journalist—and former Pioneer Log editor—whose work has been published in the Oregonian, Portland Monthly, and Oregon Business, among others.