Of all punctuation marks, the lowly comma, that period with a tail, is one of the least impressive marks. It’s not like the emphatic exclamation (!) or the inquisitive question (?) or the definitive period (.). Comma means a pause and pauses are not exciting, but they are dramatic. But make no mistake, that lowly comma has cost consumers, multi national corporations, and even governments millions of dollars by it’s misplacement or exclusion. While the two of us have talked endlessly about how “words” matter, we have been derelict in not emphasizing that punctuation matters as well. Who know that falling asleep in Miss McGillicutty’s first period Grammar class in high school could come back and bite you in the wallet.

In case you think we’ve made up the quote “million-dollar comma”, do a Google search and you’ll run across many famous incidents. For example when the US Government in 1872 was imposing a tariff on tropical and semi-tropical fruit plants. The directive was suppose to read:

“Fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation”. Well, some clerk misplaced the comma by moving it over by one word, placing it after the word fruit instead of plants so it now read:

“Fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation”.

If you were an importer of lemons, oranges, or such, you could, and did, claim that you were exempt from paying any tariffs or duties. Millions of 19th century dollars didn’t make it into the US Treasury because of that comma. Lawmakers soon redrafted that legislation with a more careful clerk.

A grammatical blunder may force the multi-mega Canadian corporation Rogers Communications Inc., to pay an extra $2.13-million to use utility poles. The placement of a comma in a real thick contract permitted the deal’s cancellation.  As reported in the very proper English press, “The controversial comma sent lawyers and telecommunications regulators scrambling for their English textbooks in a bitter 18-month dispute that serves as an expensive reminder of the importance of punctuation”.

Along with these serious comma examples, there are many Internet memes and clickbait like the magazine cover that read: “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog”.  Or the bar sign that read: “Toilet only for disabled elderly pregnant children.”

So what do telephone poles, tropical and semi-tropical fruit, an memes have to do with you as a creative or semi-creative person? Plenty. Ed, as a lawyer, has seen incidence where wording on an invoice can mean the deference between collecting 3 figures or 6 figures for a client. So the difference between $100,000 and $100 is just “three figures” or – $99,900 in real money. Again, that expensive comma. Usually but not always the mistake is made in the usage section.

A travel and leisure photographer was photographing for a cruise line and issuing a license for the usage. Intended usage was for the US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and ST Croix) and Puerto Rico.  Actual license due to the bad comma, placing it between “US” and Virgin Islands” instead of after “Virgin Islands” now changed the usage to the entire “50” United States, both the US Virgin Islands and now the British Virgin Islands (Virgin Gorda, Tortola and so on) and Puerto Rico.

So the comma gave the cruise ship client much more usage, all are places where the cruise line does business regularly by soliciting customers. Normally the inclusion of the entire US and the British Virgin Islands would have resulted in a much higher fee for this photographer.

While the media jumps on and writes about big time government and corporation screw-ups like the above all the time, it is not as sexy or interesting writing about a photographer’s $20,000 screw-up. That $20,000 means more to an average photographer than $20 million means to a government. Here is another real life actual example that we know of that cost a photographers real money.

Intended usage: Consumer magazines, trade publications, in-store brochures.

Actual invoice: Consumer magazines, trade, publications, in-store brochures.

The client rather than having a license for trade publication wound up getting a use for both trade and publication, therefore the client was able to use the image for trade purposes and all publications. This now went from a very limited usage to a very broad usage, with a payment of what would have been a substantial license fee. Generally speaking if the language of the agreement of invoice is clear and unambiguous, courts will not change their terms no matter how big the screw-up, no matter how much you beg them.

More than being careful about commas in your paperwork, you are more likely to need short but specific words to help you. Like our favorite word “Only” followed closely by the even shorter “No”. These words become extremely important and valuable to you because of the explosion of new media possibilities for our creative work. No longer is the media used a short list of consumer or trade publications or use, billboards, brochures, TV, and so on. Now the number of places ad agencies can place ads has exploded. Internet web pages, banner ads, search engine pushes, rotating video billboard and transit ads. In NY you can buy time for ads that run on a monitor in the back of taxis. Using the word “only” puts a corral of protection around the usage you are approving and licensing.

Along with being careful with your grammar as we pointed out, be very specific in the language in your licenses. Many readers have asked us for a license template, and while we are working on a legal and language kit for artists, that we hope to have out in digital form this year, we want to emphasize that you don’t need a lawyer for the wording in a license. You license should be in plain English, like “For Trade publications only” or “No TV usages allowed”. Or plain language of your choice if proper English isn’t your language, like if you speak Spanish or French or even New York Brooklynese: “Yo, using in a TV spot, forgetaboutit.”

Your paperwork and the client’s paperwork shouldn’t have “legalese” that you don’t understand or terms that you don’t know the meaning for. Art buyers love to include the word “collateral” in purchase orders for the usage. OK, what does that mean exactly? We know what it really means is sort of “ What ever we didn’t think of to spell out when writing this order we’re going to now include a word that opens a big door for any other use, in other words- ‘collateral’”. They’re doing what is best for their client, which is what any good employee tries to do, but it doesn’t mean you have to just accept it blindly. Paperwork from the client in the form of a Purchase Order (PO) is an offering. You can except it or reject it or modify it. Do not fall for the line that it’s “standard” and everyone just signs it. Nothing is “standard”. They have their standards and you should have your standards.

Another area to watch are more complicated words that clients want to impose on you in the fine print in their purchase orders. Copyright transfer language is usually obvious and easy to spot. Just cross it out and initial what you crossed out. One word photographer overlook all the time but is one Jack always crosses out is “indemnification”. Owww, that one can really sneak up and take a big chunk out of your wallet without you realizing it until it’s way too late. Indemnification means you are financially responsible for any lawsuits that crop up. Now, if an agency wants you to make you responsible for the veracity of your image, that you own it and you have the releases if it comes out of your stock images, that’s fine. It’s the blanket, broad indemnification that should make you very wary. That makes you responsible for the agency’s actions that you have no control over. Like if they add copy to your family image that claims it’s a family of meth addicts (this has happened to one of Ed’s model clients) and the models sue for being placed in a bad light, which a standard model release does not cover. The agency gets sued and their lawyers decide it’s not worth fighting, so they make a generous settlement agreement with the models, let’s say $75,000 for argument’s sake. Guess what, even though you had no say in saying it’s a meth family in the copy (you thought it was a pharmaceutical ad, which it might have been) and you had no say in the settlement negotiations, by virtue of you signing a purchase order with an indemnification clause, you’re the one on the hook for $75,000, not the agency.

Not only do words matter, they, and grammar and punctuation, can all be very costly to your financial health. Where or where is Miss McGillicutty when you need her?