The Real Cost of a Social Media Misstep

Money by Andrew Magill from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Money by Andrew Magill from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I was talking with some non-lawyer entrepreneurs lately, and I asked them what they thought would be the worst case scenario if their company broke the law via their social media, and they both responded that they would have to take responsibility for their mistake, apologize, and do some damage control. While I appreciate that these business owners appeared to have integrity and good intentions, I internally cringed that they both assumed that saying, “I’m sorry,” should be enough to fix a problem.

I want to share some numbers for the costs a business could easily face if they violate a law with their online posts.

Trademark Infringement – Cost of Rebranding
Think about how much time and money you’ve spent selecting the name for your business or product, your logos, your slogans, your domain, and your website. Now, how would you feel if you had to do it all again? That’s what could happen if you select a name for your business or product that’s already been registered by someone else in your industry. In the best case scenario, they’ll send a cease and desist letter and demand that you rebrand. In the worst case scenario, they’ll sue you for infringement, and you could be spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and fines.

This is why I suggest companies check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Database for registered trademarks to verify the name or slogan they want to use hasn’t been claimed by someone else.   I’m also an advocate of registering your trademark as soon as you can afford it, so no one can restrict your use of your own name or steal it from you.

Illegal Social Media Policy – at least $10,000
Every company needs a social media policy, but employers need to understand that a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that protect union activities also apply to employees talking about their work – even in public online forums. If you fire an employee for violating the company social media policy and it turns out your policy violates the NLRA, you could be ordered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to pay the ex-employee back wages, damages, and offer them their job back. My friend who works on these cases says if you have to pay the ex-employee $10,000, you got off easy.

Copyright Infringement – $150,000 per Work Copied
Many business owners don’t understand that they can’t use any image they find via a Google Image search. There are even marketing “professionals” who will tell you that you can use any image you find online as long as you give an attribution and a link to the original. Both of these are excellent ways to commit copyright infringement. And photographers are becoming more savvy about protecting their rights so if you use their work they may send you a bill or a lawsuit instead of a cease and desist letter or a takedown notice. In the worst case scenario, you may face a lawsuit for $150,000 per image you used without permission.

Be careful if you outsource your content creation that your contracts clear state that the writer or artist who creates your content also indemnifies you if you are ever accused of copyright infringement because of something they created for your site or posted to your social media.

Defamation – $2,500,000
Defamation generally requires making a false statement about a person to a third party that hurts the person’s reputation. When I do talks about social media horror stories, I talk about a case where a blogger was sued for defamation because of one blog post and was ordered to pay him $2.5 million. 1 blog post. $2.5 million. (The case is currently up on appeal but I don’t think it looks good for her.) This is when little words matter because it’s easy to think you’re stating an opinion but your phrasing creates a statement of a fact – and if it’s a lie, it could be defamatory. Think before you post and check your sources.

ruthcover smallerPlease note, these numbers do not include legal fees you could face in addition to damages if you’re sued because of your social media posts. The legal issues listed above only scratches the surface of what wrongs a person or company can commit online. The good news is most of these problems are preventable with education and diligence. I strongly recommend you stay abreast of what laws apply to your social media postings and developments in this area of law.

If you need a legal resource for laymen on this topic, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It covers a lot of the major issues that apply to blogging and social media. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

What Are You Buying When You Use an Independent Contractor?

Photographer Dan by Kevin Dooley from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Photographer Dan by Kevin Dooley from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I get questions all the time from people involved in situations where a business outsources the creation of their website, marketing materials, or other photography work about who owns the copyright in the final work product and what can the other side do with it. And I get these questions from people on both sides of the relationship – the hiring company and the artist.

In these situations, my first question is always, “What does the contract say?” Under the U.S. Copyright Laws, if you hire a third party to do your graphic design, photography, or similar work, the artist owns the copyright in whatever you’ve hired them to create unless you have a written and signed contract that says you will own the copyright in the final product. A lot of business owners don’t understand this. They think they automatically get the rights in whatever they’ve hired someone to create just because they’ve paid for it. And that’s not true. Without an explicit contract that says they own the copyright, the artist owns it and the business has an implied license to use it.

Look at it this way – if you buy a poster for your office, you’re only buying the print. You don’t get the copyright with it. You can decide where you’re going to hang it or if you’re going to get rid of it, but you can’t make copies of it and sell them. Likewise, if you hire someone to do photography work for your website, you’re only buying the digital images, not the copyright in them. If you wanted to do something else with the images, you would need the photographer’s permission. If wanted to buy the rights, you could do that, but expect to pay extra.

There are many artists who write their contracts to say that the business hiring them owns the copyright in whatever they’ve hired the artist to create once they’ve paid their bill in full. That means if the client hasn’t paid their bill, they don’t own the rights to the work product, and the artist has rights to remove it from the client’s website if the client is using it without complying with the terms of the contract. I recently had a discussion with a website designer about modifying her contract template to explicitly state that she can and will shut down the client’s website if they are using her work and they haven’t paid the balance owed to her.

Here’s a video I did on additional issues you want to consider if you are or working with a third party contractor.

If you are a third party contractor or working with one, please read your contract carefully. This is the document for managing your relationship, including who owns the final work product and what happens if a problem arises. If you have contract templates in your work, make sure a skilled business and intellectual property attorney reviews them before you use it, because otherwise you may be stuck with terms that you don’t like.

If you want to chat more about working with contractors, copyright, and/or contracts, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Intellectual Property in Comic Books

Comic Books by Sam Howzit from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Comic Books by Sam Howzit from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I had the pleasure of presenting on Comic Book Creator Rights with the award-winner comic author Mike Baron at Phoenix Comicon last weekend. We talked about how important it is for writers and artists to understand what rights they have in their work and the various ways they can protect it.

Copyright
An artist or writer has copyright rights in their work the moment they put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. As the owner of their work, they can control where their work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made.

Unlike books where a complete story is often contained in a single volume, a comic book story may be broken up into several 22-page issues. One thing Mike and I suggested to our audience was registering the copyright in the “story bible” as well as each issue that the artist creates. A story bible is a master document that lays out the setting and norms of that universe and the backstory and characteristics of each major character.

The copyright laws regarding infringement for published and unpublished works are different, and under the current laws (that are in need of overhaul), a work that is released only online is “unpublished.” To maximize your options for recourse (i.e., financial damages), I advise artists to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office before they release it if it is unpublished. Mike also suggested doing a short run of each issue so the work will qualify as “published” and the rules about when you have to register to be eligible for what’s called statutory damages are more favorable.

Trademark
A comic book artist could have several trademarks related to their series – the name of the series, logos, slogans, and the name and possibly depiction of the characters. Any or all of these could be trademarks used to market the artist’s work.

For each of these potential trademarks, it’s a good idea to run a search on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) trademark database to make sure that another artist doesn’t already have the exclusive right to use that trademark in relation to comic books or similar products. If they do, they can force the other person to rebrand.

If the desired trademarks are available, putting a superscript “TM” next to them will put everyone on notice that the artist is using them as trademarks, not just elements in their series.  Registering them with the USPTO will increase their value and give the artist the exclusive right to use those trademarks. No one else in the industry could have the same trademark in the U.S. Registration also increases their value and may make the artist’s work more desirable if their goal is to be acquired.

Identifying and creating a strategy to protect your intellectual property is complicated, so if you want to talk more about this subject, feel free to  connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Can You Trademark & Copyright a Phrase?

What's not wrong with PIPA or SOPA? by opensourceway from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

What’s not wrong with PIPA or SOPA? by opensourceway from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I saw this tweet come through my feed over the weekend.


It made me grin, and then my big dorky legal brain kicked in and had to analyze the possibilities.

Can You Trademark a Phrase?
It depends.

If a phrase is being used as a tagline or slogan for a company or product – think “M’m! M’m! Good!” for Campbell’s Soup or “Just Do It” for Nike – then yes, you can trademark it. If it’s just a phrase that’s not connected to a product or service, then it’s not trademarkable.

The purpose of the trademark is to differentiate similar products and services from each other so consumers know what they’re buying. When you register a trademark, you have to tell the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office what you’re claiming as your trademark (name, logo, slogan, etc.) and on what product or service you’re using it. A cool phrase without a product or service is just a phrase. It can’t be protected with a trademark.

Can You Copyright a Phrase?
Probably not.

The purpose of a copyright is to entice authors and artists to create works by giving them the exclusive right to control where their work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. They have these rights the moment the original work is “fixed in any tangible medium.”  A phrase is often too short to be original so it doesn’t qualify for a copyright, even if it is fixed in a tangible medium like on paper or a digital file. If a person had a copyright in a phrase, they could stop others from using it in their work and it would create a big mess.

Think about Paris Hilton and “that’s hot.” She does have a trademark that phrase in conjunction with “multimedia entertainment services” and alcoholic beverages. She can stop you from using “that’s hot” as a slogan or product name in those industries, but she can’t stop you from saying “that’s hot” in general.

What about “Terminally Soulless Douche Canoe?”
“Terminally Soulless Douche Canoe” is an awesome phrase. You could use that as a company name, product name, or slogan if you want, but you have to be able to identify what industry that company or product is in. Unfortunately, even though I think it’s highly creative, it’s too short to get a copyright by itself. If it was part of a larger work – such as an essay, blog post, poem, book, or integrated into a work of art – the artist would likely have copyright protection for the larger work, but probably not for the phrase alone.

For more on the difference between trademark and copyright:

If you want to chat more about trademarks and copyrights, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

The Legal Side of Revenge Porn

Untitled by seanmcgrath from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Untitled by seanmcgrath from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the downsides of technology is most people have the ability to create intimate photos and videos with their smartphones which is now leading to an increase in “revenge porn.” For those of you who don’t know, revenge porn is created when a person takes the photos or videos from their prior romantic relationship and posts them on the internet to humiliate their ex-partner. I think posting revenge porn is juvenile and disrespectful, but there are also legal implications in these situations.

Copyright Infringement
If you take an intimate photo of yourself and send it to your partner, you own the copyright in that image and therefore have the exclusive right to copy and distribute it. If your ex posts it on a website or shares it with someone without your permission, they are likely committing copyright infringement.  If you find a “selfie” photo of yourself on the internet that was posted without your consent, you may be able to get it removed using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by sending a takedown notice.

Cyberharassment
Arizona has state laws against cyberharassment and against harassing someone via electronic communications, both of which are punishable by up to six months in jail and up to $2,500 fine. Other states have similar laws. If the person who posted the photos or videos did it with the intent to harass or harm you, the poster may have violated one or both of these laws.

Invasion of Privacy and other Civil Violations
Some people who are victims of a revenge porn situation are interested in a civil lawsuit. They may want to consult a lawyer to determine if the person who posted the pictures or videos likely violated your state’s laws related to invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, and, if they’re making money off of you, the commercialization of your image. These are state law issues so you’d have to have a lawyer compare the facts of your case against your state’s laws.

Challenges in these Cases
One of the challenges in these cases is proving that your ex was the person who posted the photos or videos. The IP address will tell us from where they were posted so if they posted from home, that’s a good indicator that your ex did it. However, some people try to cover their tracks by using public Wi-Fi but there are other ways to gather evidence about the person who posted your intimate photos on the internet to discern their identity. There is always a chance that your ex isn’t the perpetrator but someone he/she shared your photos with (which could be another case against your ex)or a person who got access to your ex’s phone or computer without consent.

Another challenge in these cases is for people pursuing a civil lawsuit, you may win the case by you might not be able to collect if the defendant doesn’t have any money. The defendant doesn’t have any money, you might have a hard time finding a lawyer who will take your case unless you pay for your legal fees.

If you want to watch me jump on my soapbox about revenge porn, I made a video about it earlier this year.

If you are in a revenge porn situation, talk with the police and a lawyer who can discuss all your options. If you want more information about what you can/can’t post on the internet, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Poor Man’s Copyright Doesn’t Work

Self-Addressed Envelope after it's been through the Mail

Self-Addressed Envelope after it’s been through the Mail

Every time I speak about copyright to a group of artists or writers, someone always asks me about how poor man’s copyright works and whether it’s valid. Poor man’s copyright is the idea that you can establish that you created something first by mailing a copy of your work to yourself and using the date on the postmark as proof of when you created it. If anyone copies your work and claims a creation date that’s after your postmark, you can use the postmark to show that you created the work first.

To anyone who’s been sending their work to themselves, you can stop. Poor man’s copyright is crap and a waste of your time and money. A postmark on an envelope tells you when the post office processed the envelope, not what was inside of it. You could easily send an unsealed envelope to yourself and put your work in it later and seal it.

Self-Addressed Unsealed Stamped Envelope Ready for the Mail

Self-Addressed Unsealed Stamped Envelope Ready for the Mail

You get the exclusive rights to copy, distribute, display, perform, and to make derivative works based on your work the second you’ve fixed your work in any tangible medium. (Sorry, there’s no copyright protection for ideas that only exist in your head.) If you want to maximize your rights in your work, including the ability to sue for copyright infringement and collect statutory damages, you need to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can do it online and most application fees are only $35.

To demonstrate why poor man’s copyright doesn’t work, I recently addressed an envelope to myself and sent it, unsealed, through the mail. I made a video about the result. You can see it below or here.

If you want more information about how you can protect your rights in your work, please contact me or a copyright attorney in your community. You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.