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.

Copyright Protection – Ideas vs Expression

Golden Gate Bridge by Julian Fong from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Golden Gate Bridge by Julian Fong from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A common mistake among professional creatives and amateur is understanding the scope of copyright protection, In the U.S., when you have a copyright, you have protection for your original expression, not the ideas contained within your work.

What Does Copyright Protect
Copyright applies when you have an “original work of authorship” that is “fixed in a tangible medium.” When you have a copyright, you can prevent others from using or claiming your work without permission, but it doesn’t give you a monopoly over the ideas contained within a work.

The image above is a photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge by Julian Fong. By taking this photo, he has the copyright in the image; however, he can’t stop others from taking picture of the bridge. If I went to San Francisco and determined where he was standing, I could take a photo that is nearly identical to his, but that is not a violation of his copyright. He can only stop me from claiming his work as my own or using his work without his permission. He can’t stop me from creating my own picture. His rights only extend to his exact expression, not the idea of capturing an image of this bridge on a sunny day.

The same rules that apply to images also apply to written material. This is why multiple people can write about the same topic and even express similar sentiments without risk of violating the other’s copyright rights. As long as one writer is not deliberating copying the other’s work word-for-word and claiming it as their own, it’s possible for two people to create similar works without violating the other’s rights. It is permissible under the concept of fair use to quote another writer and provide your own thoughts and others’ perspectives about the issue.

What Is Not Protected
Copyright only protects original expression, it does not protect facts, ideas, methods, titles, names, short phrases, or recipes. Copyright can protect and original arrangement of facts, but not when it’s an unoriginal arrangement. That’s why a cookbook may be protected by copyright (original arrangement of recipes and images) but a phonebook is not.

I regularly receive questions from people about what is the scope of copyright protection and whether contributing to a project (such as being the subject of a photo) gives them rights in the resulting product. Copyright, like many areas of law, has few definite answers. Each situation must be evaluated based on its merits.

If you want to talk with me about copyright law and protecting your rights, 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.

Reclaiming your Copyrights

Music by Brandon Giesbrecht from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Music by Brandon Giesbrecht from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

It was recently announced that Sir Paul McCartney filed papers in the United States to reclaim the rights to 32 songs from The Beatles’ catalog. The rights to these songs are currently owned by Sony. Yes, there is a provision (call if a loophole if you will) in the U.S. Copyright Act that allows for this.

How the Rule Works
This is a rule that applies to all creatives, not just a rule that applies to the rich and famous. You can look it up at 17 U.S.C. § 203 if you want to read it for yourself. The purpose of this rule is to five an author a “second bite of the apple” to those who may have granted a copyright transfer or license that they later regret. It protects people from being taken advantage of.

Here’s how the rule works: 35 years after the copyright assignment or license was granted or 35 years after the work was published, the author(s) can send notice to terminate this transfer or license and reclaim their rights. There’s a relatively small window in which an author must send the notice of termination with the effective date. A copy of this notice must be filed with the U.S. Copyright Office. If an author has passed away, whoever has the author’s “termination interest” in the work can send the notice – usually the author’s family.

There is one caveat to this rule – it does not apply to works made for hire.

Why More People Don’t Take Advantage of This
Why is this the first time most people are hearing about this loophole? Most of the time, it’s not worth pursuing.

At 35 years after a work was created, there is likely little or no money to be made off the work, so from a financial perspective, it’s not worth pursuing. If money is being made from the work, the author may be better off leaving their work in its current situation and the royalties keep flowing in. They don’t have to fix what’s not broken.

In Sir Paul McCartney’s case, he signed over the rights to his work decades ago, and yet he is still going strong as a musician. The BBC article on his bid to reclaim his rights specifically stated that he’s trying to obtain the publishing rights in his music. John Lennon’s share of the rights in the McCartney-Lennon catalog will remain with Sony.

If you signed away your copyright in a work and you wish to reclaim your rights, speak to a copyright attorney about your options. If you have questions about copyright or intellectual property ownership 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.

Model Release for TFP Photo Shoots

Photo by Joseph Abbruscato, Used with Permission

Photo by Joseph Abbruscato, Used with Permission

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of participating in an open photo shoot at a junkyard in Wittmann, Arizona. Dozens of photographers and models converged on this location to shoot around all day in and on the various broken down vehicles and other surroundings. It was a great event to meet other of photographers and models, and to work with the unique aspects of this setting.

As we entered the junkyard, there were 2 large neon green handwritten poster boards that reminded us that we were entering at our own risk, cameras were in use, and that our picture may be taken without our knowledge. Additionally, they said “If you do something stupid we know where to bury you” and “Don’t do anything you don’t want your mom to know about.”

These signs were brilliant and hilarious, but incomplete given that this notice was the closest thing we had to a model release for this event. As a model, I knew what I was getting into; but as a lawyer, it made me cringe.

Photo by Bob Johnson, Used with Permission

Photo by Bob Johnson, Used with Permission

What is TFP?
This was a TFP photo shoot – Trade For Photos or Time For Pictures depending on your definition. As I understand it, this means it was an open and free event where models and photographers could meet, shoot, and without any money changing hands. After the event, both sides will have had the experience, and the model will get images.

This particular photo shoot was announced as a TFP photo shoot on Facebook without any additional documentation. Without a written contract to the contrary, the photographers are the copyright holder’s to every image they created that day. The models have no copyright rights to the work, not even a license to use the images in their portfolio unless they get that permission from the photographer. Since the models didn’t sign a model release, the photographers can’t sell any of the images they created without risking violating the models’ right to publicity.

Writing a Simple Model Release
An effective model release does not have to be long, complicated, or filled with legalese. It can be a simple contract that everyone has to sign prior to entering the shoot that lays out the ground rules for the event. The model release should clearly state what rights the models give the photographers and with the photographers give the models in return – such as a license to use any image from the shoot in their portfolio or online with an attribution.

The release for this particular event probably should have included a liability waiver given that we were climbing in and on broken down vehicles and surrounded by broken glass and gagged metal. We all should have been required to sign off that we were responsible for our own actions and wouldn’t go after the owners of the junkyard or anybody present in the event that we fell or got tetanus.

I wrote a simple one-page model release for a swimming pool photo shoot last summer that every model and photographer had to sign with their contact information. This put everybody on the same page from the beginning of the event, including the acknowledgment of the “No Jerks” rule, and since everyone provided their contact information, it was easy for models and photographer to connect after the event.

The next time I see an invitation for an open TFP photo shoot, perhaps I should offer to write a simple release for the event, especially if I’m going to be a model there. If you have a question about copyright, model releases, or photography rights, please contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Burning CDs = Copyright Risk

CDs or DVDs by mlange_b from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

CDs or DVDs by mlange_b from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

For the last few weeks, I’ve received several questions about the legalities of burning entire albums from a friend’s CD collection and creating and giving mixed CDs to loved ones or as part of a corporate gift. These questions make me cringe.

The U.S. Copyright Act allows you to make an archival copy of media you’ve legally obtained, in case something happens to the original. This is for personal use, not to be shared with others. It is perfectly legal to create a playlist or mix CD from your music collection for your personal use. If you allow friends to copy your CDs, that is likely an illegal copy (unless the music is so old that it’s in the public domain). By burning a copy of your CD, you are depriving the artist and their record label of the royalties they would have earned had your friend bought their own copy.

To the person who asked me if they could make a mix CD of holiday music to send to clients and contacts, that really made me cringe. Not only would you likely be illegally copying and distributing music without a license, but you would also be informing your contacts through your actions that you either lack knowledge of copyright law, or you don’t respect it. Neither of those are a sentiment you want to have as part of your reputation.

The exception to this situation is to get permission to make these CDs by obtaining licenses for each song. I work with an organization called Ignite Phoenix that puts on awesome shows that showcase speakers’ passions. At several events, we wanted to highlight the musical talent in the Phoenix area, so one of our organizers contacted local bands who agreed to have one of their songs featured on an Ignite Phoenix compilation CD that was handed out to every attendee.

Remember, what you can legally do and what you may get away with are often different things. The only person who can come after you for infringement is the copyright holder. If they don’t know what you did or they don’t care, you won’t be sued for infringement. Although it is rare to hear about copyright infringement cases like this, they do happen. A woman in Minnesota was ordered to pay $1.9 million for illegally downloading 24 songs. The amount was later reduced to $220,000.

The interaction between the Copyright Act and technology is often confusing, with many gray areas instead of black-and-white answers. If you have any questions about copyright and avoiding the risk of infringement, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Residential Holiday Light Shows | Is That Legal

Christmas Lights by Luke Jones from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Christmas Lights by Luke Jones from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A friend sent a link to this article on Gawker about Kevin Judd of Riverside, California who had an awesome Halloween light show that was synchronized to music like Gangham Style . . . at least he did until his HOA shut him down. My friend asked if displays like this are otherwise legal.

To be clear, I’m not a scrooge when it comes to these types of light displays. I appreciate the time, effort, creativity, and innovation that goes into putting one of these amazing shows together. When I was a law student, watching the video of a light show to David Foster’s Carol of the Bells was the only thing that could make me smile while I was studying for finals.

Despite my enjoyment of these light shows, there could be legal issues related to them. The main one I see is copyright infringement. Whoever owns the copyright in a song gets to control where the music is performed. When you buy a song on iTunes, it’s for personal enjoyment, not for public performances. If anyone who created this type of light show, especially if it’s they’re making money from it, they should get a license to play it.

However, I wonder if these light shows qualify as a permissible use under fair use. (Fair use protects the use and transformation of others’ work to create new works, as long as you’re not interfering with artists’ ability to benefit from creating their original art.) My mnemonic device for the fair use factors is PAIN:

  • Purpose: Definitely transformative and noncommercial if you’re not charging people to watch it.
  • Amount Used: The whole song is typically used, but that makes sense given the circumstances.
  • Impact on the market: Attending a light show will likely not be a replacement for someone who only wants to listen to the music.
  • Nature of the Works: Integrating an audio file into a larger multimedia performance.

If someone is doing a light show on their home without charging a fee, there may be a decent argument that what they’re doing is protected by fair use. To date, I have no heard of a record label ordering someone to stop using their music in a holiday display on a home. I suspect they appreciate the free advertising and they don’t want to be seen as the mean rich record label that shut down the light show that made children happy.

Even though using music in a light show may be legal under copyright under fair use or a license, there may be other legal implications like HOA rules, city noise and/or light ordinances, and causing traffic problems. If you want to chat about the legal issues related to your holiday display, 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.

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).

 

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.

U.S. Copyright Office is Raising its Filing Fees on May 1, 2014

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, the U.S. Copyright Office announced that it is raising its fees to register your work. Effective May 1, 2014, the cost to register a single work or a collection of works using their online system will go up from $35.00 to $55.00 per application. For those of you who are old school and prefer to register your work by mail, the fee will go up from $65 to $85.

So if you have projects that you were planning on registering with the Copyright Office, now would be a really good time to get them done.  You only have to get your application in before May 1st; it may take the Copyright office until after May 1st to process it.

There is one piece of good news in the fee hike announcement. The U.S. Copyright made an exception for individuals who are registering single works that are not “works made for hire.” If you are a photographer, writer, or some other artist and you want to register you works individually, your filing fee will remain at $35 per application.

I had a question about this exception because I know many artists who create a lot of works that are not works made for hire, but they do it under an LLC for liability and tax purposes.  I called the Copyright Office and they confirmed that you only qualify for the $35 fee if you register as an individual person. If you register your work under your business name, you have to pay $55 per application, even if you are the only person in the business.

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The only things that are changing on May 1st are the Copyright Office’s fees. The rest of the copyright laws have remained the same.

To qualify for a copyright, you need an original work of authorship that is fixed in any tangible medium. When you have a copyright, you have the exclusive right to control where your work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. You get these rights the moment your work is created, even if you never register it with the Copyright Office and even if you don’t put a copyright notice on your work – i.e. “© [Copyright Owner’s Name] [Year].”  If you register your work, your registration provides the presumption of ownership and validity of your copyright rights. If you ever want to sue for copyright infringement when someone steals your work, you must register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office first.

If you want to talk more about copyright, copyright registration, or intellectual property strategy, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. If you post your original work online, I strongly recommend you check out the many chapters on copyrights in my books:

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