Frank Cassel, a Georgetown street musician, has been asked recently by police officers whether he has a license to play his flute, five-string banjo and guitar and to collect money from passers-by.
Cassel, who has been playing in the streets for three years, said he never knew he needed a license.
He decided he needed an explanation of the city's laws, so he spent Saturday at a day-long conference sponsored by the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts.
The conference, held at the Kennedy Center and attended by about 200 artists and arts organization representatives, was the first sponsored by Lawyers for the Arts (WALA), a nonprofit organization established in January to provide free or reduced-fee legal services to struggling artists.
"One of the important functions of WALA is not only to promote pro bono free legal assistance to low income artists and arts groups, but also to assist artists in avoiding legal problems by helping them to become more sophisticated about their own legal rights and responsibilities," said Susan Liberman, a lawyer who serves as acting director of WALA.
Saturday's workshops included how to organize an arts group, copyright laws, contracts and tax information.
Lawyers usually charge about $50 an hour, and an application for tax-exempt status of the kind needed by most arts and performing groups costs $1,000 to $2,000. Yet, the median annual income nationally for artists is only $9,800, according to figures supplied by WALA.
"Basically artists have the same problems with contracts as other people," said Frederic W. Schwartz Jr., a Washington attorney in private practice and a member of WALA's board of directors.
"They don't read them, they don't understand them, and they don't write them -- the other side does," added Schwartz.
In another workshop, Christopher A. Hart, a lawyer specializing in communications law, explained the differences between setting up a corporation and a partnership, saying a partnership is easier to manage.
Lynn Brice Rooney, a Washington artist currently living in Israel, said, "This is one of the best-run conferences that I've ever come to. The amount of information and the very high level of expertise is really extraordinary."