Fair Use Victory!

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Ninth Circuit of the Federal Court handed down an important ruling regarding fair use this week. In Lenz v. Universal, aka the “Dancing Baby” case was about copyright, DMCA takedown notices, and fair use. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued Universal Music Publishing Group after Universal sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice when a mother uploaded a 29-second video of her baby dancing to a Prince song.

The key element of this court ruling is that the court declared that “copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a [DMCA] takedown notice.” Prior to this case, fair use was regarded as an “affirmative defense.” If you’ve seen my YouTube videos, you have seen this one where I declare, “Fair use is a defense, not a permission slip.” This court said that’s not the case, but rather that fair use is authorized by the Federal Copyright Act. There is no copyright infringement if your use of another’s copyright-protected work is permitted by fair use.

If you’re interested in learning more about fair use, I wrote a post that includes a mnemonic device for the fair use factors for a panel I did at Phoenix Comicon on fair use and fan art/fiction.

There are two downsides to the case (at least for now):

  1. Although the court said that copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a DMCA takedown notice, they only have to have subjective good faith belief that the use of the copyrighted work is illegal, even if this belief is objectively unreasonable.
  2. This ruling only applies to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit is comprised of Arizona, California, and must of the western United States. However, this ruling is not binding on the other ten Circuit Courts, but they can take it under advisement in future cases.

This case is a step in the right direction and will hopefully lead to fewer abuses of the DMCA. You can read the EFF’s full report about the case here.

Footnote: This case took eight years to reach this ruling. Sometimes pursuing a lawsuit is the right decision, but you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

How the copyright laws apply to the internet is a legal issue that is constantly developing. If you need a resource about how the law applies to 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 a specific question related to copyright or internet law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Working with People who Don’t Understand Copyright

Sentinel vs. Jawa (88/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Sentinel vs. Jawa (88/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the scenario: You are a newly hired third party content creator for a company. You learn that your client has a habit of copying pictures from Pinterest or Google Images searches without verifying that they are allowed to use the images on their website and/or social media posts. They want you to do the same. What should you do?

Option #1: Your Client Needs an Education about Copyright
Some people truly believe they can use any image they find on the internet, particularly if they give an attribution and a link back to the original. There are so-called “gurus” who will tell you this is ok. It’s not.

What your client is likely doing is committing copyright infringement. Inform your client that he/she is running the risk of getting a cease and desist letter, a bill with a license, or a lawsuit. In the worst-case scenario, they could face a lawsuit for $150,000 per image they use, plus attorneys’ fees. Tell your client to thank their lucky stars they haven’t faced one of these consequences yet and advise them that the prudent thing to do would be to replace all images on their site with pictures they can legally use.

Use this an a teaching experience to educate your client about the importance of asking permission, using Creative Commons, and possibly exploring whether what they are doing in some situations qualifies as fair use.

Option #2: Your Client Understands but Disregards Others’ Copyright Rights
Fire your client.

This person is obviously an idiot. No money is worth being affiliated with this company. Run away as fast as you can.

Footnote: Every company should have a “No Jerks” rule when it comes to employees and clients. If you find someone violating this rule at a genetic level (not just having a bad day), cut all ties with them immediately.

The same rules about copyright that apply to your website also apply to your social media posts:

Whenever I work on a contract for the relationship between a company and an outside content provider, I always recommend that my client require an indemnity clause that will protect them if they are accused of intellectual property infringement based on material provided by the other party. Your contract is the master document for your working relationship. It should clearly define the parties’ obligations to each other which should include deadlines and deliverables and also how you will resolve problems when they occur.

If you want to know more about the complex issues related to copyright and the internet, 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 this topic, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Pictures on your Phone – Who Owns the Copyright?

No Pants 2015 Photo by Devon Christopher Adams, used with permission

No Pants 2015 – Photo by Devon Christopher Adams, used with permission

Here’s the scenario: You’re out to dinner with a group of friends. You ask your server to take a picture of your group with your phone. Your server obliges. The image is on your device; but who owns the copyright – you, the server, or the restaurant?

To get a copyright, you need an original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium. Taking a photograph of a group of people constitutes an original work fixed in a tangible medium, even when it’s just a digital file on your phone. The copyright holder has the exclusive right to control where their work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. This person has these rights the moment a work is created – they don’t have to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office to obtain these rights.

Given this information, who owns the copyright in this situation?

Is it You?
You orchestrated the photo and it’s on your phone. You may be the only one who can physically copy, distribute, and use the photo – at least in regards to the first time it appears away from your device. I can’t say for certain that the law would say you’re the copyright holder since you didn’t physically push the button to create the photo, it’s unlikely that anyone would challenge you for copyright rights.

Is it the Server?
If it wasn’t for the server, this photo as it is wouldn’t exist. From that perspective, the server could argue that he/she owns the copyright since he/she pushed the button that created the image.

Is it the Restaurant?
If your job involves creating intellectual property, your employer is the author and owner of all the intellectual property you create while performing your job tasks. However, a server’s job isn’t to create intellectual property; their job is serving food and providing customer service. The restaurant probably doesn’t have any claim to the copyright in the image.

A restaurant may have policy on their social media profiles or posted in the restaurant that says you grant them a license to use any content you post about them. If you post the image online, they may be able to use the image without asking for additional permission, but they still don’t own the copyright.

So who’s the copyright holder – the server or the person who owns the camera? I’m not sure. I’d have to evaluate the specific facts of the situation. But here’s my question: does it matter? What is the likelihood that there are going to be problems related to this image? Will the server ever see or care if you post the photo? Probably not. And even if they do, I suspect he/she won’t care.

Copyright is a complicated issue, especially when it involves the internet. If you want to chat more about this topic, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Trademark Registration Workshop for Bloggers

The Anxious Type by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Anxious Type by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve been on my soapbox for a while about the importance of registering your trademark if you have a blog. Even if your following is small, you want to stake a claim to your site’s name because if someone registers your name before you, they can essentially shut down your site. If they register your name as a trademark after you’ve started your site, you don’t have to shut down your site, but you can’t grow you market.

This is not a new problem but it is getting more complicated in the online world. The most infamous trademark story I know in the brick-and-mortar world is about two different Burger King restaurants. The most infamous situation in the blogosphere is the Turner Barr situation:

When I speak at social media and blogging conferences, I encourage everyone who has a blog to register their site’s trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). (Ditto for vlogs and podcasts.) A lot of people agree that it’s a good idea; however most people don’t follow through and do it.

The #1 reason I hear why most people don’t register their trademark: the cost.

I’m not going to lie. Registering a trademark is expensive. The filing fee alone is at least $225. But what would suck more – paying for a trademark or having to rebrand because someone else registered it – especially if your plans include making money off your site?

I am almost through the process of registering the trademark for my blog, The Undeniable Ruth. It’s got me thinking that I could do small workshops with bloggers (3-5 participants) that includes an overview of trademarks and then I could lead them through the process of filling out the USPTO trademark application during the session, and then shepherd their applications through the rest of the process. Since it would be in a group setting, I could charge half the price of what I’d normally charge to submit an application for a client (only $499 instead of $1,000).

Interested? Please fill out the form below and if there’s enough interest, I’ll schedule a workshop.


If you want to know more about the legalities of blogging, please watch my Q&A keynote from TechPhx or check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.  You can also contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

When “I’m Sorry” Isn’t Enough

Sorry Bout That! by Anne-Sophie Ofrim

Sorry Bout That! by Anne-Sophie Ofrim

I’ve encountered a significant number of people in my short legal career who were under the impression that they could absolve themselves from legal wrongdoings by simply apologizing. Unfortunately for them, that is often not the case.

When I first meet with a client, especially in situations where they suspect their intellectual property has been infringed, I start by asking, “How do you want this to end?” Their answer will inform me what I need to do to try to get their desired result (and if that result is available).

Sometimes my client simply wants the alleged infringer to stop using their work. That requires a cease and desist letter from me and the recipient to cease and refrain from using the material in question. An apology isn’t even required. However, if my client wants money, and my evaluation of their case shows that they are eligible to collect, “I’m sorry” will not be enough to resolve the situation.

In general, once lawyers are involved, “I’m sorry” is not going to be enough to fix the situation. If a person hires a lawyer, they are usually investing hundreds of dollars in an attempt to seek their preferred resolution. Very few people are willing to pay that amount just for an apology.

In my experience, when one side gets a lawyer the other side should get one too – if only for a consultation to understand the totality of the situation. They need to understand their options for responding to a cease and desist or a demand letter and the likely consequences of each potential course of action. In a perfect world lawyers talk to lawyers when there is a dispute. They know the law best and can often speak more candidly about the situation and achieving a resolution.

Every entrepreneur should watch Mike Montiero’s “F*ck You, Pay Me.” It’s an outstanding talk that shows how the legal system helps entrepreneurs protect their rights.

If you believe your rights have been violated or you’ve received a notice from someone’s lawyer accuses you of intellectual property infringement, breach of contract, or the like, contact a lawyer in your community who can analyze the situation and advise you on your options. If you want to chat more about this topic, you can contact me or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

What Happened to Adult Wednesday Addams?

Haunted House by barb_ar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Haunted House by barb_ar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Earlier this year, I discovered Melissa Hunter’s “Adult Wednesday Addams” on YouTube. It’s a collection of short videos featuring Melissa playing a grown-up version of the iconic Addams Family character. In each video, Melissa dresses up like Wednesday Addams (black dress, long braids, pale skin, and deadpan attitude) and plays out everyday occurrences (like interviewing to be someone’s roommate and going to work) while embodying the Wednesday Addams character. She is a talented, smart, and funny writer.

Recently I noticed that all of Melissa’s adult Wednesday Addams videos were pulled from her YouTube channel. (You can still find them on others’ channels.) Apparently, Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, the copyright holder for the Addams Family, flagged her videos for copyright infringement after her video where Adult Wednesday Addams responds to catcallers gained attention by the international press.

So of course, my question in this situation is, “Are the Adult Wednesday Addams videos infringing on the original Addams Family copyright or are they protected by fair use?”

The law is complicated and there is no mathematical equation that will definitively show whether this is fair use. That is up to a court to decide based on the merits of the case. There are four main fair use factors. I created an acronym of the fair use factors when I spoke at Phoenix Comicon last year on fan art and copyright: PAIN.

P = Purpose and character of your use

A = Amount of the original used

I = Impact on the market

N = Nature of the work you copied

Here’s my take on how the fair use factors apply to this situation:

  • P (Purpose): Adult Wednesday Addams transforms the original Wednesday Addams character who was a tween in the latest Addams Family movie (Favors Melissa). I don’t remember if Melissa was running ads on her videos, but if she was, that would be a strike against her – but not a deal breaker (Favors Addams Foundation).
  • A (Amount): Compared to the entire Addams Family franchise, Melissa only used a single character (Favors Melissa) but compared to the copyright in the Wednesday Addams character herself, Melissa copied a substantial amount (Favors Addams Foundation). However, part of what makes Adult Wednesday Addams work is that we know that she is copying the original. That’s what makes it so funny, and parody is generally protected by fair use.
  • I (Impact on the market): Apparently there is a new project in the works for the Addams Family, but I don’t know if Melissa’s work will have any effect on that. Melissa’s videos are only a few minutes long, compared to the longer TV shows and movies created using the original characters’ story line. Her work is definitely not a viable substitute for those (Favors Melissa).
  • N (Nature of copied work): The Addams Family has been made into cartoons, a TV show, and movies. Melissa Hunter created short YouTube videos. Although these are both audiovisual works, they cater to different audiences (Favors Melissa).

Do I think what Melissa did was fair use? Yes. I hope she’s fighting the claim that her work is copyright infringement, and I hope whoever is working on the Addams Family remake offers to hire her. Remember, fair use is a defense, not a permission slip, so Melissa has to prove to the court that what she did was legal if she chooses to fight this.

Yesterday, Melissa released a video with an update about Adult Wednesday Addams:

I’m glad to see that Melissa is as sassy as ever and that she’s working on this while putting energy into new projects too. Keep wearing that dress!

Fair use cases are usually complicated. If you want to chat more about fair use and copyright, please contact me or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Creator Rights | Phoenix Comicon Recap

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon - sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon – sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

I had an awesome time presenting on Creator Rights at Phoenix Comicon this year with Javier Hernandez. His comic book series, El Muerto, was recently made into a movie and a fan created a fan film that was shown at the Con. It was really interesting to hear his story as an artist trying to muddle through the legalities of working in the arts with the help of his lawyer.

I don’t prepare much for my talks at Phoenix Comicon. I feel like it’s my job to be there to explain legal concepts in plain English and answer the audience’s questions about copyright, trademarks, contracts, and fan art. There’s always a fun smart audience with thoughtful questions. It’s a privilege to be invited back multiple times. Here are some of the highlights from this year.

You have Rights in your Original Creations
There is no legal protection for ideas but there is for original works of authorship once you’ve captured your ideas in a tangible medium such as paper or a digital file. The copyright laws were designed to protect original storylines and fully-formulated characters. I often recommend that artists at least register their “story bible” with the U.S. Copyright Office to maximize their legal rights related to their work.

Once you create a comic, you have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, or make derivative works from your original work. That’s why the movie studio had to get the option (aka license) from Javier to make a movie from El Muerto, because a movie is a derivative work. Javier didn’t authorize the creation of the fan film and so when he went to see it, part of his motivation was to see if he wanted to exert his legal rights to stop the creators from showing it in other forums.

Protect your Trademarks
Someone in the audience shared a horrific story. He created a comic and after he started sharing his work with others, someone else started a similar comic – with the same name. Here’s the kicker, the second guy registered the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What a nightmare. I told him to call a lawyer to try to sort out this mess.

A lot of beginning artists and people who create art as a hobby don’t understand their rights and how they can avoid problems like this by registering their trademark before their competition does. Or if they understand their rights, they don’t invest the money to file the proper applications with the federal government. These types of problems happen all the time. Check out what happened when two restaurants decided to call themselves “Burger King.”

When Contracts are Involved, Call a Lawyer
If you are lucky enough to create art that someone wants to buy or license, call a lawyer. The other side is going to present you with a contract that was written solely based on their interests. You need someone who is equally versed in entertainment contracts to represent you. Lawyers talk to lawyers – so hire someone who can explain the process, understand your priorities, and advise you of your options.

Javier and I had a fantastic time doing this panel – sharing our experiences and knowledge from the creator’s and lawyer’s perspective. It was a wonderful juxtaposition for the audience. I also did a panel at Phoenix Comicon on Fan Art/Fiction and Copyright. If you want to know more about that specific topic, check out this post I wrote last year with a handy mnemonic device.

If you have questions or want to chat more about creator rights, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Richard Prince’s “New Portraits” – Art or Infringement?

Photo courtesy of Gagosian via Gothamist

Photo courtesy of Gagosian via Gothamist

A few people sent me links to articles about Richard Prince’s art show called “New Portraits” at Gagosian gallery. He took screen shots of other people’s Instagram photos, added one comment, and is selling them for $100,000 each. From what I’ve read, he never asked any of the Instagram users for permission to use their images and they aren’t getting any of the profits from the sales.

Apparently Prince has done things like this before – taking others’ work, altering it, and selling it. According to reports, he’s been challenged in court and won in previous situations. (Fair use is a portion of the copyright law that allows others to build on other’s work in original ways, like adding commentary, creating a parody, or making new artistic statements.) Prince’s history of being victorious in the courtroom might make these Instagram users hesitate to bring a lawsuit against him now, but I’m not convinced they would lose.

There is no cut-and-dry, black-and-white mathematical equation that will definitively show whether what a person did constitutes fair use or copyright infringement. That is up to a court to decide based on the merits of the case. The court can consider any evidence it wants in these situations, but there are four main fair use factors. I created an acronym of the fair use factors when I spoke at Phoenix Comicon last year on fan art and copyright. The acronym for the fair use factors is PAIN:

P = Purpose and character of your use

A = Amount of the original used

I = Impact on the market

N = Nature of the work you copied

Here’s my take on how the fair use factors apply to this situation:

  • P (Purpose): Prince used others’ work for a commercial purpose (to make money) and didn’t transform the originals except to add a single comment to each one and create a collection. (Does not favor Fair Use)
  • A (Amount): Prince took screen shots of each user’s Instagram profile and used an entire photo. (Does not favor Fair Use)
  • I (Impact on the market): As far as I know, Prince is the only person currently selling these images, but the fact that he’s selling them could impact the original artists’ ability to sell their work. The fact that Prince is selling these prints doesn’t change whether these images are available to view the original images online. (Weak argument for finding Fair Use at best)
  • N (Nature of copied work): Prince took images from a social media platform and created “art.” There might be an argument that the audience that would seek these images out online is different than an audience who would be interested in Prince’s work. (Weak argument for finding Fair Use.)

Do I think this is fair use? No, but I’m not the judge in this situation. We won’t know for certain until and unless the Instagram users’ whose photos were used in Prince’s work bring lawsuits against him for copyright infringement. I suspect many or all of these photos are “selfies” so these individuals may have a claim against him for commercializing their images without consent as well as a copyright infringement case.

Remember, fair use is a defense, not a permission slip. If these users sue for copyright infringement, Richard Prince would have the burden of showing that what he did was sufficient to qualify for fair use.

Fair use cases are usually complicated. If you want to chat more about fair use and copyright, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

More articles about this situation:
Artist Steals Instagram Photos & Sells Them For $100K At NYC Gallery
Richard Prince Sucks

If Someone Sends you a Photo of Themselves, Do you Own It?

Parade Selfie by Paul Sableman from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Parade Selfie by Paul Sableman from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Frequently I hear questions like, “If someone emails or texts me a photo of themselves, does it become my property?” Many people in this situation want to know if they own the photo and what they are allowed to do with it.

The answer to “Do I own the photo?” is “Yes” and “No.” Yes, you do own a copy of the photograph by virtue of the fact that someone gave it to you. However, owning a copy of a photograph does not mean that you own the copyright in the image, which is why you can’t do whatever you want with the picture. If the person who sent you a photo intended to give you the copyright as well, the copyright assignment would have to be in writing.

Think of getting a photo via email or text message like it getting a postcard in the mail. The postcard was addressed to you so you now own it, which means it you can look at it, put it on your refrigerator, and if the message doesn’t contain something that any reasonable person would know the sender would expect to be kept private – you could show it to others. However, you cannot make photocopies of the postcard and sell it or send it to others without the copyright holder’s permission.

Keeping this in mind, it should be obvious that the fact that someone sent you a photograph does not give you permission to do whatever you want with it. You would have to get permission from the copyright holder to post it online, and if it’s an image the sender would expect you to keep private, merely showing it to others could be illegal. If the photo in question is an explicit image, showing it to others could violate your state’s revenge porn law, which may be a felony.

With few exceptions (like child pornography) having a photo is not illegal but what you do with it could be. Therefore, if someone sends you a photo of themselves, you may keep it for your personal viewing pleasure but it could be illegal to share it with others.

This is an area of law that is still evolving. Since mobile devices come equipped with cameras, it’s important for everyone who has one is mindful of their dos and don’ts regarding sending and receiving images. If you want to talk more about this topic, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Clothing Line Intellectual Property

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas 'nclm' from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas ‘nclm’ from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently I’ve had a few questions about intellectual property related to starting the clothing line or T-shirt business. These people asked me how they can protect their work. Is it trademark? Is it copyright? The answer is, it’s probably both!

A trademark is anything you put on your goods or services to differentiate them from the competition. And a business can have several trademarks. They are your company name, brand names, slogans, logos, etc. Likewise, a clothing line can have several trademarks including your company’s name, the name for each collection, slogans, and your logos. The triangle patch with the question mark on it is a trademark for Guess jeans as is the alligator logo for Lacoste brand clothing.

Before you select the trademarks you want for your clothing line, be sure to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to verify that the trademark you want has not already been claimed by another company in the apparel industry or a related industry. If a trademark has already been registered that company could stop you from entering the marketplace using a trademark that is confusingly similar to theirs. (See the story of The North Face v. The South Butt for an example.)

Your clothing line may also contain several copyrights. If you design T-shirts, you will have copyright rights in each design. You may also have copyright rights in your logo. You have rights in what you create the moment you create it; you don’t have to register them with the U.S. Copyright Office to obtain your rights (however, you do have to register if you want to sue for copyright infringement.) If your design is simply a short phrase on a shirt, it may not be copyrightable because short phrases are often not original enough to warrant having a copyright. Depending on what your phrase is, if you’re using it as a slogan, it could be a trademark.

If you outsource the creation of the designs for your clothing or the creation of your marketing materials, make sure you have clear written contracts with these independent contractors to ensure that you own whatever you have hired them to create. Otherwise you may find yourself in a situation where the artist owns the intellectual property rights in what they created, and you merely have a license to use it.

As you can see, determining what intellectual property you have may be a complicated question. It’s best to consult an intellectual property attorney to assist you in identifying your intellectual property and determine the best strategies to protect it, which may include registering your copyrights and trademarks.

If you have any questions about copyrights or trademarks, feel free to shoot me an email or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.