The Law Doesn’t Care About Your Feelings

Sad Face by wlodi from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Sad Face by wlodi from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: The law doesn’t give a fuck about your feelings.

I get a lot of phone calls and emails from people who are sad, angry, afraid, or filled with regret and they ask me if there are any legal options for their problems. The law doesn’t provide recourse when you’re sad. The law provides recourse when your rights have been violated.

And don’t assume that just because your feelings are hurt that your rights must have been violated. With most people I talk to, that’s not the case.

The law doesn’t care about your feelings. It cares about your rights – and only when you can actually prove it.

Before I went to law school, I worked in the mental health industry for nine years. Believe it or not, I was a Licensed Professional Counselor. I talked to people about their feelings for a living. (And there’s a reason I don’t do it anymore – I’d rather be more hands-on in the problem-solving process.) I probably get just as many calls from people who want to talk about their feelings now as I did back then. A lot of people call lawyers when they should be calling therapists. They’re looking for a magical answer to make things the way they wish they could be. I’m sorry, but most of the time, the law doesn’t do this.

In general, the law is a bad course of action to resolve a non-criminal problem. It should be the option last resort because the process could easily take months or years during which you will spend thousands of dollars in legal fees. Even if you win – and there’s no guarantee – you may never collect. It’s a long process, filled with stress and heartache – no matter which side you’re on.

If you think you have a legal problem should you consult a lawyer? Yes. But don’t be surprised if lawyer tells you that there isn’t a legal solution to your problem.

In my perfect world, people would consult a lawyer before problems happen. Many times when I consult with clients, I’m providing as much information about business strategies and considering the gestalt of a situation, not just giving legal advice. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to prevent and prepare for problems than untangle legal knots and clean up avoidable messes.

If there’s a topic you want me to pontificate on, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Turnabout is Fair Play – Getty Sued for $1B for Copyright Violations

The Trees are Laughing at Us by daspunkt from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Trees are Laughing at Us by daspunkt from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Getty Images is known for sending letters to people suspected of using their images without purchasing a license. These demand letters essentially say, “By using our image, you’ve agreed to pay for a license. Pay $XXX by this date or we will sue you.”

They may have started the trend of other photographers sending similar demand letters when people use their images without permission. (I’ve sent these type of letters and counseled clients who have received them – usually from pulling images from a Google Image search without verifying that they had permission to use it.)

Getty sent such a letter to documentary photographer Carol Highsmith, claiming that she was violating their terms for using an image. Here’s the catch – it was a photograph that Highsmith took herself and previously shared with the Library of Congress to allow free use of her work by the general public. Highsmith has shared tens of thousands of images with the public through the Library of Congress since 1988.

Highsmith learned that Getty is claiming copyright rights to thousands of her images work and demanding payment for licenses, often without attribution to her, and adding “false watermarks” to the images. She filed a $1,000,000,000 (that’s $1B with a “B”) copyright infringement lawsuit against these agencies for the “gross misuse” of 18,755 of her photographs.

That’s a lot of photographs.
I hope they have good insurance.

But $1B?! Really?!
Actually, yes. In this case, suing for $1B makes perfect sense.

A party who adds or removes a watermark from a photo to avoid detection for copyright infringement can be fined up to $25,000 per image in addition to other financial damages for copyright infringement.
$25,000/image x 18,755 images = $468,875,000

And if a party is found to have violated this law in the last three years – which Getty has – the complaining party can ask for triple the damages.
$468,875,000 x 3 = $1,406,625,000

Looking at this, it’s easy to see how easy it is for Highsmith to reasonably request over $1B in damages. She’s also requested a permanent injunction to prohibit future use of images by Getty and the other Defendants and attorneys’ fees.

You can read the full complaint filed by Highsmith against Getty in New York Federal Court here.
So far, Getty claims they will defend themselves “vigorously.”

This could be a fun case to watch. If this case doesn’t go to trial (and most cases don’t), I hope the settlement isn’t kept completely secret behind a non-disclosure agreement. One of the recommendations I make to anyone who is a professional creative is determine in advance how you want to respond when your work is used without your permission and plan accordingly. For many people, it’s not if their work is stolen, but when.

There are a lot of issues that come into play surrounding photography, image rights, and copyright. If you want to chat more about these topics, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

EDIT: The previous version of this post stated that Highsmith released her work to public domain. My apologies. Highsmith retains the copyright in her work, but allows others to freely use it through the Library of Congress.

Typical Sex Video Email Conversation

What Are You Looking At by nolifebeforecoffee from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

What Are You Looking At by nolifebeforecoffee from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I regularly receive emails from people asking questions about the legalities related to intimate photos and videos – particularly situations when a third party has possession of them. Sometimes the third party allegedly obtained them nefariously and sometimes the people emailing me voluntarily sent the person photos or video and now they have concerns about what said person will do with them.

Now they have concerns?! These are questions they should have asked themselves before they sent the photos/video to begin with!

Here’s an example of how these conversations typically go. The text in italics are things I usually think, but don’t share with the other the person in the moment.

Prospective Client (PC): I made a video with my boyfriend and his ex got a hold of it. His ex is threatening to send it to my parents and post it. What can I do about this?

How did his ex get access to your sex video? This sounds like someone neither of you should have contact with.

ME: How old are you?

Please don’t be a child . . . please don’t be a child . . . please don’t be a child . . . (Yes, sometimes it’s a minor – or so they say.)

PC: 24.

ME: Thank goodness this isn’t a potential inadvertent kiddie porn situation.

You’re an adult. Besides being embarrassing, who cares if this person shows the video to your parents? (I’ve also had people email me claiming the third party is threatening to send it to the PC’s employer.)

ME: Where do you and the ex live?

In Arizona, merely threatening to post revenge porn is a felony.

PC: Nebraska.

Ok, well that’s outside the limits of my law license and revenge porn legal knowledge.

ME: Here’s the list of the current revenge porn and related laws in all 50 States. This will tell you how the laws in your State apply to these situations.

PC: I don’t know what to do. I want to go to the police but I don’t know if I can do that.

ME: Of course you can go to the police! Give them a call, explain your situation, and ask if there’s anything they can do to help you. They may be the best ones to know if this situation violates your State’s criminal law.

And maybe some local resources too that help people in these types of situations.

I get questions and hits on my site every day from people asking about intimate photos and videos, not all of which were taken with consent, and how to keep them from getting out. Unfortunately, I also get hits from people who want to post revenge porn without repercussions – which is disgusting.

When in doubt – don’t. Don’t create intimate photos or videos, don’t share them with others, and don’t post them online. What seemed like a good idea in the moment, may create long lasting regret, especially if it shows up when someone Googles your name. However, if you choose to create this type of material, do it with your device, keep it under password, and never let the files out of your control. Once this material is released, it’s hard to get it back or verify that every copy has been destroyed.

We’re still in the infancy of how we’re going to deal with intimate photos and videos from a social and legal perspective. If you want to chat with me about revenge porn, privacy, or any related topics, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here. If you think you’re the victim of revenge porn or threatened revenge porn, contact your local law enforcement agency.

Response to Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines

11/6/2015 - Taurid Meteor Shower - Joshua Tree , CA by Channone Arif from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

11/6/2015 – Taurid Meteor Shower – Joshua Tree , CA by Channone Arif from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

In light of the recent lawsuit between CBS and Paramount Pictures and a Star Trek fan film creator, CBS and Paramount released guidelines regarding fan-created films.

Previously, fan fiction movies were limited to camcorders and sets people created in their backyards, but now with computer animation and other technology, a fan could create an impressive work of fan fiction. You can see some earlier Trek fan fiction on the documentary Trekkies.

A friend asked me to weigh in on these guidelines. As a die-hard Star Trek fan, my legal interpretation may be slightly biased in favor of promoting fandom. Below are the guidelines in full with my comments in italics:

CBS and Paramount Pictures are big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity (I’m glad you support fan art/fiction. Star Trek is known for inviting fan-submitted scripts, but what do you mean by “reasonable?”), and, in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek. Therefore, CBS and Paramount Pictures will not object to, or take legal action against, Star Trek fan productions that are non-professional and amateur and meet the following guidelines. (It’s nice when people tell you how not to get sued.)

Guidelines for Avoiding Objections:
1. The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes. Is this because you don’t want fan fiction to compete with the TV series and movies? I wonder if someone is less likely to make significant money from a one-off video vs. a series. I wonder if the copyright holder would have objected if Melissa Hunter only made one Adult Wednesday Addams video instead of two seasons.)

2. The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name “Star Trek.” However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term “official” in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan production. (This makes sense from a trademark perspective. With brands creating content in various genres, it’s important to avoid confusing viewers about what is/is not made by the brand vs fans.)

3. The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing. (This makes sense because of copyright. It’s ok to copy ideas, but not the original work itself. This may be overstepping a little bit depending on how they define “recreations.”)

In my Starfleet uniform and Trill Make-up, 2000

In my Starfleet uniform and Trill Make-up, 2000

4. If the fan production uses commercially-available Star Trek uniforms, accessories, toys and props, these items must be official merchandise and not bootleg items or imitations of such commercially available products. (I understand that they want to promote their partners and don’t want fans being misled. However, it makes more sense to require disclosure of sources of props and costumes. Some fans prefer to have a tailor custom-make uniforms instead of buying them from commercial sources. And thank you for calling them uniforms, not costumes – as a fan and Starfleet officer myself, I appreciate that.)

5. The fan production must be a real “fan” production, i.e., creators, actors and all other participants must be amateurs, cannot be compensated for their services, and cannot be currently or previously employed on any Star Trek series, films, production of DVDs or with any of CBS or Paramount Pictures’ licensees. (What?! This seems overreaching and overly broad, especially considering that non-compete agreements are not permitted in California. Past and current employees can have non-disclosure agreements that limit their participation in other projects. Even a hobbyist has to pay for certain things – like a musician paying for studio time.)

6. The fan production must be non-commercial (This makes sense. Many artists approve of fan art as long as the person isn’t selling their work.):

  • CBS and Paramount Pictures do not object to limited fundraising for the creation of a fan production, whether 1 or 2 segments and consistent with these guidelines, so long as the total amount does not exceed $50,000, including all platform fees, and when the $50,000 goal is reached, all fundraising must cease. (Thank you for understanding that hobbyists have expenses – despite your contradictory term above.)
  • The fan production must only be exhibited or distributed on a no-charge basis and/or shared via streaming services without generating revenue. (Ok – so you can’t submit your video to film festivals or run ads on it if you post on YouTube.)
  • The fan production cannot be distributed in a physical format such as DVD or Blu-ray. (This makes sense given current technology. They want to protect their intellectual property.)
  • The fan production cannot be used to derive advertising revenue including, but not limited to, through for example, the use of pre or post-roll advertising, click-through advertising banners, that is associated with the fan production. (Fair enough.)
  • No unlicensed Star Trek-related or fan production-related merchandise or services can be offered for sale or given away as premiums, perks or rewards or in connection with the fan production fundraising. (This makes sense in terms of protecting their intellectual property, and also makes it more challenging to use fundraising sites.)
  • The fan production cannot derive revenue by selling or licensing fan-created production sets, props or costumes. (Agreed. This makes sense.)

7. The fan production must be family friendly and suitable for public presentation. Videos must not include profanity, nudity, obscenity, pornography, depictions of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or any harmful or illegal activity, or any material that is offensive, fraudulent, defamatory, libelous, disparaging, sexually explicit, threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content. The content of the fan production cannot violate any individual’s right of privacy. (I understand no porn, but no illegal activities? What are the bad guys supposed to do? Even Star Trek episodes and films depictions of tobacco and alcohol and the films contain the occasional swear word.)

8. The fan production must display the following disclaimer in the on-screen credits of the fan productions and on any marketing material including the fan production website or page hosting the fan production:

“Star Trek and all related marks, logos and characters are solely owned by CBS Studios Inc. This fan production is not endorsed by, sponsored by, nor affiliated with CBS, Paramount Pictures, or any other Star Trek franchise, and is a non-commercial fan-made film intended for recreational use. No commercial exhibition or distribution is permitted. No alleged independent rights will be asserted against CBS or Paramount Pictures.” (This makes sense, but the last sentence suggests that CBS and Paramount may be able to use fan-created content without obtaining the creators’ permission.)

Hanging with the Klingons, Grand Slam Star Trek Convention, 2001

Hanging with the Klingons, Grand Slam Star Trek Convention, 2001

9. Creators of fan productions must not seek to register their works, nor any elements of the works, under copyright or trademark law. (What about the fans’ rights to protect their original works of authorship and their brands that don’t infringe on CBS or Paramount’s rights?)

10. Fan productions cannot create or imply any association or endorsement by CBS or Paramount Pictures. (Agreed.)

CBS and Paramount Pictures reserve the right to revise, revoke and/or withdraw these guidelines at any time in their own discretion. These guidelines are not a license and do not constitute approval or authorization of any fan productions or a waiver of any rights that CBS or Paramount Pictures may have with respect to fan fiction created outside of these guidelines. (This makes sense as long as CBS and Paramount don’t change the rules and go after a fan film creator who reasonably complied with the guidelines as written at that time.)

I appreciate that CBS and Paramount Pictures’ desire to protect their intellectual property and that put out guidelines to further this goal, but I wish they would be more fan-friendly. Hopefully this is only an over-zealous reaction to the recent lawsuit and not a sign of future legal battles between Star Trek and their fans.

If you have questions about the legalities of fan art/fiction or you just want to geek out about Star Trek, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Where to Put “#ad” on Instagram Posts

Free StuffLast month, Rosie and I attended BlogPaws – a conference for pet bloggers – where I taught a workshop with Chloe DiVita and Tom Collins on the Legal Dos and Don’ts of Blogging and Social Media.  We did a three-hour presentation that focused on copyright and the federal rules that apply to product reviews, campaigns, and promotions.

We reminded the audience that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires people to provide their honest and accurate opinions when writing product reviews. If you have a relationship with a company – whether you got free product, you have a contract with them, or even if you have personal relationship with someone in the company, you always have to disclose these relationships – clearly and succinctly – in every post and platform you mention them. We also reviewed the Lord & Taylor fiasco. This was a good reminder for social media influencers not to assume the companies they work with will know these rules or provide proper guidance

After the workshop, I did one-on-one sessions with attendees. Per the conference organizers, each person only got 10-minutes, so it was like a legal information kissing booth – sit down, ask one question, and get out. One attendee asked, “I understand that I have to put #ad on all Instagram posts when I have a relationship with a company, but are there rules about where I have to put it?”

Hmm . . . that’s an interesting question, and one I’ve never heard before.

Rosie and I were happily the most underdressed on the BlogPaws red carpet. (Photo by Silver Paw Studio, used with permission)

Rosie and I were happily the most underdressed on the BlogPaws red carpet. (Photo by Silver Paw Studio, used with permission)

The purpose of the FTC rules is transparency. The law requires posters to inform others of potential bias due to a relationship with company so whomever reads the post can consider this in conjunction with the content of the post. This disclosure must be clear and conspicuous,  you can’t put it behind a link. The easiest way to make this disclosure is to include “#ad” on each applicable post.

I grabbed my phone and scrolled through my Instagram feed. Each post cuts off after the first three lines until you click on it to read more. Based on this, it appears the prudent place to put “#ad” on an Instagram post is to put it in the first three lines so anyone looking at their feed on their will know when you have a relationship with a company.

After the conference, I looked at Instagram’s Terms of Use. Although their terms are impressive and thorough, there are currently no provisions explicitly about when and where to use “#ad.”

The law is constantly trying to keep up with technology, including the internet. If you’re a social media influencer, keep up with changes in the FTC rules regarding disclosures on product reviews and promotions. and other rules that apply to your posts. If you have questions about internet law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Hat tip to Rosalyn of Golden Woofs and Sugar the Golden Retriever for this question.

What Went Wrong with Fate Brewing Company

Photo Courtesy of Fate Brewing Company (Scottsdale, AZ)

Photo Courtesy of Fate Brewing Company (Scottsdale, AZ)

Earlier this month, Fate Brewing Company announced that they were changing their name to McFate Brewing Company.
Wait…what?! Is this awesome local brewery turning itself into some type of fast food brewery?
No, but they ran into a legal snag that forced the name change.

In 2012, Fate Brewing Company opened in Arizona. In 2013, someone else opened Fate Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado. In legalese, the Fate Arizona is called the “senior user” of the name since they opened first and the Fate Colorado is the “junior user.” Despite being the junior user, Fate Colorado sued Fate Arizona for trademark infringement.

How Is This Allowed?
Easy: Fate Colorado registered the trademark “Fate Brewing Company” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). It’s the Burger King situation all over again.

By doing business first, Fate Arizona had rights to use “Fate Brewing Company” for beer and restaurant services, but since they didn’t register their trademark with the USPTO, their rights only extended to the geographic area where they did business. When Fate Colorado got their registered trademark, they obtained the exclusive right to use “Fate Brewing Company” for beer and restaurant services everywhere in the U.S. except where Fate Arizona had an established market. Likewise, Fate Arizona couldn’t expand its market beyond its established boundaries without infringing Fate Colorado’s rights.

I suspect Fate Colorado sued Fate Arizona for trademark infringement in part because their trademark was granted in 2013 and Fate Arizona South opened in 2015. Fate Colorado could have interpreted the new location as a market expansion that violated their trademark rights.

New Logo for McFate Brewing Company - opening June 25, 2016

New Logo for McFate Brewing Company, Photo courtesy of Fate Brewing Company

What’s Next for Fate Arizona?
Even though Fate Arizona could have made a legal argument that they had the right to use the name as the “senior user,” they have opted to take the high road to rebrand rather than spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on this legal fight. The re-branding party for McFate Brewing Company (named after the owner, Steve McFate) is scheduled for June 25, 2016 according to Fate Arizona’s Facebook page.

I hope Fate Colorado wasn’t a jerk about this process. A company has an obligation to protect its intellectual property or risk losing it, but there is more than one way to pen a cease and desist letter.

How Could Fate Arizona have Avoided This Problem?
Yes. Fate Arizona could have beaten Fate Colorado to the USPTO and filed a trademark application before they did. They could have staked their claim to the name and gained exclusive right to use the name nationwide, shutting down Fate Colorado or forcing them to rebrand from their start.

Many new businesses are more concerned about getting off the ground than federal trademark filings, especially when the business only has aspirations of being a local brand. Unfortunately, this leaves them vulnerable to being boxed in geographically, called into court, or forced to rebrand like it did here.

If you have questions about your company’s trademark or how to select a trademark for your new venture, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Creeper Cosplay Video | Is That Legal

Gradisca Cosplay Photo Contest 2014 by chripell from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Gradisca Cosplay Photo Contest 2014 by chripell from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A contact at Phoenix Comicon sent me a link to an amateur video from this year’s event. Apparently it’s feuled quite a bit of discussion regarding the legalities of shooting video at pay-to-attend events.

My initial thoughts about this video: It’s creepy.
This guy knowingly and intentionally videorecorded women without their consent and posted the compilation online in a way that objectifies them. It’s all about their bodies. Did you notice he taped at least one woman while she was walking away from the bathroom? Eww! And what’s with that disturbing music with women crying on it? This guy is right up there with creepy yellow coat man from the 2010 No Pants Light Rail Ride.

What made this video so disturbing? Greg Benson of Mediocre Films does videos of women in cosplay at San Diego Comic-Con and I’ve never had an issue with it. I watched one of his videos from last year for comparison:

I don’t have an issue with this video for several reasons:

  • He obviously gets consent from the women to film them. There’s no hidden agenda.
  • He interacts with these women. Even when he’s enjoying the beauty around him, Greg treats these women like people, not a peep show.
  • The video has a dual purpose – one of which is showcasing these stunning costumes. (Hey Greg – if you do another video like this, would you please call it “Women of Comic Con” instead of “girls?” It’s a better embodiment of these women’s badassery.)

So is Creeper Guy’s video from Phoenix Comicon illegal?
Probably not – at least based on the footage posted. It’s not illegal to be a jerk.
If he had a ticket to the event, he wasn’t trespassing. The polite thing to do at a con is to ask permission before taking photos of attendees, but it’s not required.  He could have been a guy walking around looking like he was shooting general footage of the event, which lots of people do.

So far he’s not running ads on the video in question, so he’s not publicizing anyone’s image without permission. Phoenix Comicon is an event that’s open to the public to attend so there’s no expectation of privacy on the expo floor.

Is what this guy did vile? Yes.
Should he be banned from future Phoenix Comicon events? Perhaps, but that’s not my call to make. With a crowd of over 80,000 in attendance, it would be easy for someone to slip in.

However, instead of dealing with this situation from purely a legal perspective, I encourage the community to be aware of creepers at events like Phoenix Comicon. If you see someone leering at others or doing vulgar things like filming people’s asses as they walk, call them out and/or report them to event security. If you see someone being harassed, report that too and support that person. We have an obligation to keep an eye on each other.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the view, as long as you can do it appropriately. Remember, cosplay is not consent.

This is an issue impacting the entire geek/con community. If you believe you are the victim of a crime at a con, contact law enforcement for assistance. If you have questions about social media law or internet privacy that you want to discuss with me, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Starting a Comic Book – What Does it Cost?

Atom vs. Ant-Man (334/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Atom vs. Ant-Man (334/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I had the privilege of doing two panels at Phoenix Comicon this year: Fan Art/Fiction and Fair Use and Comic Book Creator Rights. The latter was a panel with writer/artist Josh Blaylock. He has experience licensing others’ work and creating his own.

Someone in the audience asked us how much a person should set aside to cover legal fees when starting a comic book.

Create Quality First
If your goal is to create a comic book and possibly a business from it, start by working on your craft. You won’t have any legal issues if no one cares what you’re making.

Start with a Consultation
When you’re ready to take your work from a hobby to a professional endeavor, schedule a consultation with a lawyer. Choose someone with experience in entrepreneurship and intellectual property – business formation, copyright, contracts, and trademarks. You need someone who can help you understand when you need a lawyer. Expect to pay $200-350/hour for a lawyer’s time, more depending on where you live and the person’s experience level.

It doesn’t cost much to get started with a new venture, but you do want to be thoughtful about what you can afford and act accordingly. A good lawyer will respect your budget and tell you what you can do on your own, and when it’s imperative to hire a lawyer. For instance, in many states, it’s easy to file your own business entity. Check with your state’s corporation commission for instructions and the forms. In Arizona, you can file an LLC and complete the requisite publication for less than $100.

Nuts and Bolts information by Josh Blaylock

Nuts and Bolts information by Josh Blaylock

Protect your Intellectual Property
The most valuable asset in your work is your intellectual property. Before you fall in love with a name for your comic book, run a search on the USPTO trademark database to verify that someone else hasn’t claimed the same or a similar name. Even if you can’t afford the $225-325 filing fee to register your trademark at first, you can put a superscript “TM” next to your work’s name, logo, and anything else you claim as a trademark. The USPTO has videos about how to submit a trademark application if you want to try to file your own, but I usually recommend that clients have a lawyer shepherd their application through the process. If you want to do this, expect to pay an additional $1,000 for their time.

In regards to copyright, I tell my clients, it’s not if your work gets stolen, but when so plan accordingly. For a new comic book creator, my recommendation is to register each edition with the U.S. Copyright Office. Their website is not the most user-friendly experience, but you can hire a lawyer for an hour to walk you through your first registration and then you can submit your subsequent copyright applications by yourself. The filing fee for a single work is $35-55.

Manage Relationships with Contracts
Every relationship related to your business should be documented with a written signed contract. This applies to co-owners of your business, writers, artists, colorists, licensors, licensees, vendors, and if your comic book turns into a job offer, your employment contract. Contracts are relationship-management documents. They keep everyone on the same page in regards to expectations, compensation, ownership, and they provide a course of action if there is ever a dispute. A contract is an investment and worth the cost to hire a competent lawyer to write or review your document to ensure it is effective for your needs.

Additionally, every entrepreneur should watch the video Fuck You, Pay Me, featuring Mike Monteiro and Gabe Levine. They have excellent advice for all entrepreneurs, especially those who work in creative services.

If you want more information about the nuts and bolts of starting a comic book, check out Josh Blaylock’s book How to Self-Publish Comics: Not Just Create Them. If you want more information about the legalities of starting a business or working in the creative arts, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that’s shared only with my mailing list, by subscribing to the firm’s newsletter.

Checklist for Social Media Influencers

Selfie Stick by R4vi from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Selfie Stick by R4vi from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Some people, including a lot of average joes, have such a strong social media following that brands want to send them free products to review or to partner with them for a native advertising campaign. If you are lucky enough to get such an offer, you need to understand the rules and read the fine print closely to make sure you’re not setting yourself up to be accused of an FTC violation. Don’t count on the other side to educate you. As we saw in the Lord &Taylor situation, companies who seek to partner with social media influencers don’t always know and follow the rules themselves.

If I were presented with an offer to do a product review or be part of a native advertising campaign, these are some of the questions I would ask in regards to the offer.

Influencer-Company Relationship
What is the company asking me to do?
What is the company giving me in return?
Is there fair give-and-take between both sides? (If not, it’s not a valid contract.)
Are expectations and deadlines clear?
Who is my point person at the company if I have any questions?

FTC Compliance
Does the offer require that my review be truthful?
Does the offer require me to give an accurate review of the product? (Bonus points for companies that require reviewers to write what they like and dislike about the product.)
Does the offer require that me to disclose my relationship with the company – both in my review itself and also any promotions I do about the content on social media (i.e., use #ad or #sponsored)? (The FTC requires this so if the company doesn’t want you to do this, turn and run. They don’t know the basic rules about native advertising.)

Intellectual Property
Does the offer clearly state who owns the copyright in what I create under the agreement?
By accepting the offer, do I grant the company certain rights to use my work?

General Legal Provisions
Is there a written contract? (It’s avoids confusion when all the provisions are in a single document and has  provision that states, all the terms of this agreement are in this contract.)
Is there a severability clause so if one provision is illegal, the rest of the contract remains in place?
What are the rules for modifying the agreement?
Which state law governs the agreement?
If there’s a problem between the company and me, how will we resolve it?
Under what circumstances will the agreement be terminated?

Final Words of Wisdom
Contracts are relationship-management documents, ideally written to protect both sides. If a company offers me a contract with provisions I dislike, I request changes. (I’m the queen of changing liability waivers.)

And if there’s a word or provision you don’t apprehend, ask! Don’t sign a contract that you don’t understand, because as long as it’s legal, you’re stuck with it.

If you are a serious influencer and get offers to do product reviews or participate in campaigns, treat your social media activities like a business. Consider hiring a lawyer to create a contract template for these situations when the other side doesn’t have a written contract. At the least, use this checklist to do a preliminary review of the offers you receive.

If you want more information about the legal rules regarding your blog and social media, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about social media law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that’s shared only with my mailing list, by subscribing to the firm’s newsletter.

The Paisley Dress and the FTC: A Cautionary Tale

Lord & Taylor by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Lord & Taylor by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

If you want a story of what not to do when it comes to working with influencers and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), look to Lord & Taylor.

To promote their new clothing line collection, Design Lab, Lord & Taylor sought out influencers on Instagram. They sent a piece from the collection – a paisley dress – to 50 influencers, and paid each of them $1,000-4,000 to post a picture of themselves wearing the dress on a specific day (“product bomb”). The agreement with each influencer was that they would use certain campaign designations and hashtags and that Lord & Taylor would review and approve these posts prior to the product bomb day.

The Infamous Paisley Dress

The Infamous Paisley Dress

This is where this story hurts my head:

  1. Lord & Taylor didn’t require the influencers to disclose that these posts were part of a campaign.
  2. When Lord & Taylor reviewed each post, they didn’t insist that the influencers add this information.
  3. None of the 50 influencers who were paid to post a picture of themselves wearing the paisley dress included the disclaimer or asked about it.

How can marketing professionals claim they’re competent at creating social media campaigns and not know about the basic FTC rules about native advertising?

How can an influencer who wants to use their social media platforms as a business and not know the basic rules of the game? The rules are not hard to follow:

  • Only give your truthful and accurate review of products, and
  • Always disclose when you have a relationship with a company.

If a company doesn’t want you to do this, send them a link to the FTC rules and run away as fast as you can. If they don’t understand these basic rules, they don’t know what they’re doing. I’d be worried about what else they’re doing wrong.

Companies should insist on these disclosures. When I did product reviews, my contract required me to include what I liked and didn’t like about the product and to always disclose that I got to use each product for free.

Luckily for Lord & Taylor, they appear to have gotten off with a warning. The FTC could have fined them or their influencers up to $11,000 per violation ($11K x 50 influencer posts = $550K). The next company that makes this mistake may not be so lucky.

I’m looking forward to speaking on this topic at BlogPaws to help bloggers avoid getting in hot water. If you want to talk with me about the FTC rules and social media law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content, entrepreneurial tips, and rants that are available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.