The Studio Fired Me and What We All Can Learn Part 3: Your Intellectual Property


As a GYROTONIC® and Pilates trainer I never put much thought into the idea of intellectual property, or how it might it might come into play in my career. Sure, I understood the concept, being cognizant of the proper steps in protecting the educational materials of the organizations for which I teach, but I never thought of myself as owning, never mind needing to protect, my own intellectual property. This I now see is something I need to think about more deeply.

I’m using the term fairly loosely here, but “intellectual property” in the context of the field of movement training could be many things. As examples, It could be a method or class you design, writing you do, such as blogging and professional articles, courses you create, or manuals you write. These are things you create that have value.

A few of years ago one of the owners of the studio where I was teaching decided to stop bringing in Stott Pilates training and start her own Pilates teacher training program. Partly this was because the Stott courses were too expensive to host. Also, after 20 years of teaching I had started to think beyond the Stott perspective. I was finding the curriculum and syllabus constricting while she wanted her own program, so it seemed time for a change.

I gave up my Stott Instructor Trainer status in order to help her develop this new program. I had to refrain from conducting any teacher training courses for one year after terminating my contract to be in compliance with the non-compete clause.

I was already swamped with a full load of clients and a GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® teacher training schedule that had me working long days and traveling more than I should have been. So when the request for me to write the manuals came, and came in a bit of a panic because she needed them by fast approaching deadlines, I wasn’t in a great mindset to negotiate this well (see my post The Studio Fired Me and What We All Can Learn: Part 2, Negotiate and Thrive).

I told her it was going to be extremely time intensive to write these. She offered me a choice of no payment, but then a percentage of the profits from training courses, which seemed a lot of up front investment of time and energy for someone else’s program and for which I might never see any compensation, or she’d pay me $20 an hour to write them. This was significantly less than my regular rate for training clients or what I’d make doing teacher training courses. I hesitated and then gave in to a high pressure pitch about how I needed to support our “community” and how we were a team, and how this would lead to such great opportunities. She then slipped in that she would need to list me as program director, only in name- I wouldn’t have to do anything, because she didn’t have the qualifications needed to meet the PMA requirements for setting up the program, while I did.

I began writing the manuals and structuring what would be included in the movement aspects of the training program, based on my then 20+ years of experience and much research. I wrote day and night, on planes and in airports, on trains, and on my best friend’s couch in Dublin-instead of talking to her- on a visit. And, as is predictable, I completely burned myself out doing it.

I was paid in little chunks over time and I’m not even sure the exact total that I made, but it was much less than I it would have been had I set a total fee for the service. When it was finished and printed I was surprised to see that I wasn’t even credited on the manual. I had to ask to be given credit, which I eventually was in later printings.

Now that I’m on my own I’ve had requests to conduct Pilates teacher training courses. While I don’t have time to do this and am primarily focused on the GYROTONIC® work, the fact that I don’t have access to the manuals I wrote in order to build my own program in the future limits my options. The manuals were all written in a google doc, which I can no longer access because they deleted that account when they fired me (which also deleted a fair bit of other work).

So, what did I do wrong? First, clearly I did not negotiate well. I should have made clear boundaries of what was acceptable, and what was not, and then advocated for myself. Secondly, I had no contract. I don’t even know if my name was finally used as program director or not, which I should have had in writing. If my name was used and the program was sued I might have been liable for that.

Here’s what I learned from the experience and plan to keep in mind for future endeavors:

Assess the worth of your idea or your work. It can be hard to judge for ourselves how much value something we created actually has. It may have sprung from your mind so effortlessly that you can’t image it isn’t easy for everyone else to think of, forgetting the years of experience and special way your mind works that went into its existence. Or you may have worked so long and intently on something that your pet project now seems immensely valuable to you, but maybe not so much to others.

Talk to trusted friends and colleagues and get their opinions. Try to talk to colleagues who aren’t too close to the situation, as well as ones who are well acquainted to get varied perspectives. Make sure to get input from people outside your field, such as owners of different types of businesses, maybe writers and and artists, so you can see parallels to your situation that might shake up your thinking a bit and help you see more clearly.

Consider the opportunity cost for creating something for someone else. Does the compensation they’re offering cover the time you won’t be able to spend on other ways you generate income? Does it cut too deeply into your personal time for family and self care?

Think very carefully before working for free or for cheap. You’ll often get the sales pitch that while you’re not being paid well, or possibly at all, you’re getting great future opportunities. While this could be true it must be weighed and considered very carefully. How sure are you that these opportunities will materialize? How profitable or rewarding for you will they be? How much additional work do these future opportunities entail?

Maybe it’s worth taking the risk, but know that it’s just that- a risk.

Negotiate. In my case, I made the mistake of taking one of two options presented to me. What I really should have done, but was too exhausted and overwhelmed to do, was spend some time gathering information, have a good think and some chats with colleagues, and then bring back my own third option; One that would work for me. If someone gives you an “either/or” set of choices, don’t let that box in your thinking. Use your creativity, your smarts, and your network of other creative, smart people to come up with a better alternative.

Also, as a side note, if I was too exhausted to do the research before agreeing to the project it was probably a red flag that I shouldn’t have been taking on anything additional at that point anyway.

Get it in writing. So say you come up with a clear value for your work, weigh the opportunity costs, and negotiate a fair and workable agreement. Now you must get it in writing. If there’s anyone else involved in the project, or if it’s a project you’re doing for another person or business, it must be in clear, detailed writing. Anything that’s made as a verbal agreement also has to go into writing. This works both to protect you and also as a guideline to keep all involved parties on track and accountable to their responsibilities. This can avoid, or quickly resolve, any conflicts or misunderstandings that arise. Considerations you should include are:

・What rights do you maintain to the material?

What limits are there on your future use of your material?

Time frames and payment structures.

How will other parties use the material and what are their rights and limitations?

Think of the future. How could you use this material? Can you imagine a scenario you’d want it? Don’t just think of the use for this material that’s being proposed right now. Consider, if you were in another job, another city, another life situation, how might it be useful? Think back on your life ten years ago. Would the you of back then guess that all the details of your current life now would be as they are? That’s a clue as to how much you know about what your life will look like ten years from now. It’s best to leave as many options open for your future self as possible.

Back up your materials. I lost access to all the work I had done because they had asked me to do it in a google doc and then they deleted that account. Yes, I know, that was stupid. I should have been saving everything to my computer, separate entirely from the shared docs. Lesson learned.

Get legal advice. Say you’re designing a new exercise method, or developing your own Pilates teacher training, or maybe even writing a book. You’ll need to get professional advice on copyright and trademark protection for your work and for your associated materials. I’m not going to give any guidelines on that since I’m definitely not qualified, but you can do some google searches to point you in the right direction and at least give you a sense of the questions you need to be asking.

Only when you feel comfortable that you’ve protected your interests and reached a fair, written arrangement should you release your creation to others or to the public. Most of us in this field are driven by passion and excitement for the work we do. It’s so easy to get caught up in our inspiration as we create new projects and strike out on new ventures. And this isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s part of what makes being in this profession so fulfilling. We just need to remember that while we follow our hearts we keep our heads on our shoulders.


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