Trademark Rights in Website Domains

Business Entrepreneurs by Airsoftpal.com (Creative Commons License)

I regularly get questions about whether a person should use a business name based on whether their desired website domain in available. There is also the reverse – if a company has a registered trademark, is it a deal-breaker if you want to use a similar name for your business? For example, if a company has a registered trademark for The Ooga Booga and the domain theoogabooga.com for their children’s book series, does that mean you can’t have the domain, oogabooga.com for your business?

Ooga Booga is my default fake trademark when describing trademark concepts. As of this writing (3/5/2017), no one has a registered trademark in the U.S. for “Ooga Booga.”

Two Parts to a Trademark
There are two elements to every trademark – the mark itself and the product or service with which you are using it. It’s possible for two different companies to use the same trademark so long as the products and services with which they are using it are so different that no consumer will be confused about what they’re buying. That’s why it’s possible to have Delta Faucet, Delta Airlines, and Delta Dental. No one would think these products and services come from the same company.

Do your Homework when Selecting a Domain
When it comes to selecting your company or product name and the corresponding domain, be thoughtful. Do you some searches to see if other companies have similar domains and how they are using them.

If you see someone using a domain that is similar to yours, or a product or company domain that has a corresponding registered trademark, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for your business plans, but you may want to do further research. There’s nothing wrong with two companies have similar websites as long as you have a legitimate reason for using it and you’re not violating the other company’s rights.

Let’s say you wanted oogabooga.com as your website, examine the difference between your product or service and the registered trademark for The Ooga Booga. They sell children’s books; so as long as your product or service isn’t in the arena as children’s entertainment, education, or related products, you could be ok. Most likely, no one will think that your affiliated with this other company if you’re selling something like wetsuits, wine, or financial planning services.

If you’re in a situation where you don’t want other companies having a similar domain as yours, spend the money to buy these other domains. It’s cheaper and easier to have a slew of domains related to your product rather than invest time and money monitoring, sending cease and desist letter, or pursuing other legal action against these other companies.

Only the Trademark Holder is a Threat
The good news in this type of situation is only the person who owns the trademark or other intellectual property rights can go after you for suspected infringement. If they don’t know or don’t care about what you’re doing, you face any legitimate legal threats.

Of course, when in doubt, consult a trademark lawyer to discuss your thoughts about your business or product name and website domains. If you’re interested in discussing your trademark needs, you can contact me directly or an intellectual property lawyer in your community. I regularly post about legal issues impacting entrepreneurs on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

More Information about Trademarks:

Photo credit: Airsoft Pal

Joy of Customized Partnership Agreements

Dúo by Hernán Piñera from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A contract is a “relationship management document.” A well-written contract should put everyone involved on the same page and protect both sides. A contract should provide clear explanations to help the parties avoid confusion and prevent problems. It’s an effective way to document the priorities and goals in the relationship.

You can put anything you want in your contract as long as it’s legal. (I’ve written a legitimate contract where one party had to attest that they are “a sexy bitch.”)

The Roommate Agreement: The Epitome of Customized Agreements
One of my favorite contracts is the Roommate Agreement between Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory. It’s a perfect example of how contracts can be customized (and how important it is to define words in your contracts.) Here are some of my favorite provisions of the Sheldon-Leonard Roommate Agreement:

  • Once a day, Sheldon must ask Leonard how he is (even though Sheldon doesn’t care).
  • No “hootennanies”, sing-alongs, raucous laughter, clinking of glasses, celebratory gunfire, or barbershop quartets after 10.p.m.
  • If one friend gets super powers, he will name the other one as his sidekick.
  • If one friend gets invited to go swimming at Bill Gates’ house, he will take the other friend to accompany him.
  • Once a year, Leonard and Sheldon take one day to celebrate the contributions Leonard gives to Sheldon’s life, both real and imaginary.
  • One friend has to put up with the other’s craziness. (Yes, we know: Sheldon’s not crazy. His mother had him tested.)

I love this contract. Not only is it hilarious, it shows what a contract can be.

My Partnership Agreement
If I owned a business with a partner, we would have the best owner’s agreement. Besides the provisions about how we were going to resolve deadlocked votes when a unanimous decision is required and the division of administrative tasks, we’d customize our contract based on our personalities and priorities. Here are some provisions I’d advocate for:

  • We won’t use vendors who are known to be sexist, homophobic, racist, or who treat their workers poorly.
  • No jerks. This applies to vendors and customers who want to hire us.
  • Our office will always be dog-friendly.
  • If we’re driving somewhere together, Ruth doesn’t have to drive.
  • There is only one way to say “data” correctly in Ruth’s presence.
  • If you’re sick and contagious, stay home. Keep your germs to yourself.
  • Neither owner is allowed to do their own taxes. Let the professionals do them.
  • We will have a monthly meeting to discuss the state and future plans for the company. If either owner is 10 minutes late or more, they have to buy the other lunch.

When I write partnership agreements, operating agreements, and bylaws for companies, I have a set of questions I make my clients answer to assist me in drafting a contract that fits their needs. One of the questions is “What else do you want me to include?” and I encourage my clients to be thoughtful and creative, based on their needs and their goals for their business.

If you’re interested in getting a custom contract, you can contact me directly or a business lawyer in your community. I regularly post about legal issues impacting entrepreneurs on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Time is Scarcest Commodity of Entrepreneurship

Shadow by Martin Lopatka from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Being an entrepreneur is one the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in my life. I have almost total autonomy over the type of work I do, and I get to hand-pick my clients. I get to write books, speak at conferences all over the world, and develop new products. Although my work allows me to be involved in creative projects, the one thing I can’t create is more time.

As an entrepreneur, I feel like I’m constantly running against the clock. There are only so many hours in the day, and every time I accept an invitation to an event or take on a new project, there are other opportunities I have to decline. I’ve also learned that I have to allow enough time to do basic things like rest; otherwise, I’ll get overwhelmed, short circuit my system, and crash-and-burn where I’ll need several days to recoup.

The older I get and the more complex my projects get, the more selfish I’ve become with my time. I’m grateful to have a receptionist who screens my calls and makes people contact me via email to set up appointments. The reason for this is simple: when it’s your turn, you’ll get my undivided attention; when it’s not your turn, you don’t get to distract me from my work. Every distraction is a potential delay. So, the fewer distractions, the more I can get done, and the more people I can help in the long run.

One of the biggest frustrations I have to deal with is people who waste my time, especially when I’ve set aside time for them, or worse, arranged my entire day around the expectation that they would meet a deadline or arrive for an appointment. I often run a “tight ship” when it comes to my schedule, so a delay can throw off the rest of the day. I’ll have to rearrange my calendar – and often not just for that day – and if I get angry on top of it, that can be really hard to shake off.

I had such an experience recently – a contractor working on my condo was more than an hour late for our appointment. He was supposed to arrive between 8:30 A.M. and 9:30 A.M. – and he didn’t show up until 10:30 A.M., and he didn’t call. While I waited for him, I channeled my frustrated energy into drafting a contract template where the parties agree to respect the other’s time and the penalty for wasting my time is paying me (at my hourly rate) for the time they wasted. (Yes, I had another lawyer put a set of eyeballs on this contract to verify it was legally sound. He said he was going to steal it to use in his life.)

This is a contract I want to use with all service providers moving forward. I wrote it to put everyone on the same page from the beginning of the professional relationship, where both sides commit to being on time for the other person. They acknowledge that I’m an entrepreneur, and as such, when they waste my time, they interfere with my ability to make a living.

This agreement is not as bitchy as it may sound on its face. I have to commit to following their policies for scheduling and rescheduling appointments too, and there are allowance for some delays – hitting every red light, etc. If it’s a situation where insurance is involved, it requires them to let me know two hours before my appointment time if there are any issues with getting the right approvals, so I’m in the loop, and perhaps it’s something a call from me can rectify.

Besides augmenting my service contracts with this mutual agreement to respect the other’s time, I want to bring the Law of Two Feet back into my life with a vengeance. If my needs aren’t being met wherever I am, or in whatever I’m doing, I have permission to peace out and do something different. It’s been a while since I’ve walked out of a meeting, but it’s something I may have to start doing more often.

One of the things I love about writing contracts is they can be customized for your needs (as long as the terms are legal). If you’re interested in getting a custom contract, you can contact me directly or a business lawyer in your community. I regularly post about legal issues impacting entrepreneurs on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

No Protection for Short Phrase T-Shirts

FUNNY ASS SHIRT by Douglas Muth from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I regularly get questions from people who sell shirts on Etsy, Café Press, or a similar website and they claim that another user is stealing their design. When I look more closely at the situation, I see all the person is selling is shirts with a short phrase, in a common font, and no other artwork or design elements. Many times, I have the unfortunate responsibility of telling them that there’s no intellectual property in their design, so there’s no infringement (that’s legalese for “stealing”).

No Copyright in Short Phrases
Copyright applies to original works of authorships when they are fixed in a tangible medium. A t-shirt is a tangible medium, and it’s possible to have an original work on a garment. However, short phrases aren’t original works, so the act of merely printing one on a shirt does not create a copyright-protected article.

If that’s all you’re selling – word or a phrase on a shirt – there’s likely nothing you can do (from a copyright perspective) to stop your competition from selling a shirt with the same phrase on it. If you look on any of these DIY shirt and craft sites, you’ll see the same phrases on shirts from different sellers. There’s no copyright protection for words, images, or phrases like “geek,” “reasonable person,” “Introverts Unite! Separately in your own homes,” and even more creative phrases like “terminally soulless douche canoe.”

The Anti-Titanic Shirt

This used to be less of a problem before we had Teespring, Zazzle, and sites that make it easy to create and sell shirts and whatnot. In the past, if you wanted to sell a shirt, you had design it, have it printed, and then sell them in shop or on the street, or if you had html skills, you could create a website and people could mail you a check for a shirt. That’s what my friend, Peter Shankman, did when he sold anti-Titanic shirts in 1998. He started selling them in Times Square and then sold them online. He was a success, in part, because he had no competition.

What Could be Infringement
Every t-shirt design on Etsy is not up for grabs. Copyright does not protect short phrases, but it does protect designs with original artwork on them. Additionally, copyright protects the images you post of your shirts on your site. If you see another seller using your photos, that would likely be infringement (assuming it’s your photo). Sending a DMCA takedown may be sufficient to get them removed from their online store.

The other thing to watch for is trademark infringement. A seller can use a short phrase as a trademark to brand their wares. They can also create a logo that they put on their products. If you see someone using your trademark or a mark that is similarly close to yours, that could be infringement and worth investigating.

Beat the Competition in the Marketplace
For anyone who is selling these types of shirts, the best way to deal with your competition is be better than they are. Give your customers a reason to buy from you than from another seller, or having it made at a t-shirt shop. It could be your prices, the quality of the garments, or something about your company that makes you more desirable than the others.

Beyond that, you may want to consider upping your t-shirt game by creating or purchasing designs that will be protected by the Copyright Act.

Copyright is an area of the law with many gray areas, so if you’re having legal issues regarding your copyright rights, you can contact me directly or an intellectual property lawyer in your community. I regularly post about copyright and other IP issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

How to have an Anonymous LLC

Anonymous by Poster Boy NYC from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the easy answer: You don’t.

It may be impossible to own an LLC anonymously. There’s always a paper trail and financial records that eventually lead to you.

Burying Your Identity in Your LLC
Creating an LLC requires paperwork and money. The Articles of Organization that are filed with the State are public records. If you didn’t want to have your name on your company, you set up layers of companies that own companies that own your LLC so it would take longer to trace it back to you. You could also set up a blind trust where you are the beneficiary. That would keep your name off the public records, but there would still be documents somewhere that show the connection. (Because business filing are public records, I often recommend that clients not use their home address as their business address. There are many low-cost mailbox services.)

Even if your name is not on the company as an owner, there would still be the records of payments to you. It may require a court order for someone to gain access to this information, but it would be telling if the majority of payments from the company (or companies if you ran it through multiple entities) went to a single person.

When someone asks how to be an anonymous owner of a company, it raises a red flag for me about their motivations and their business activities. If a company or person is controversial or engaging in potentially malicious acts, it may raise enough eyebrows that someone will be motivated to take a closer look at its inner workings.

How to Run a Website Anonymously
Conversely, it may be possible to operate a website relatively anonymously. You would have to essentially divorce yourself from the website:

  • Use an email address for the website registration that isn’t otherwise connected to you. Don’t access this email using your phone.
  • Pay for the website with a pre-paid credit card.
  • Use a web hosting service that protects your information.
  • Only access the website using public wifi. Never access it from work or home.
  • Turn off your phone when working on your website – so the GPS in your phone will be turned off.
  • Consider using an app that masks or mocks your GPS location when you access the internet.

Even when you take all the precautions to be anonymous online, be prepared to be unmasked at anytime. Whatever you say anonymous, you best be ready to own it once your name and face are attached to it.

If you want a resource regarding the legal dos and don’ts regarding posts on the internet, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you need legal help regarding internet privacy, you can contact me directly or a social media lawyer in your community. I post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Trademarks: Register or Rebrand

WordPress Swag by Caspar Hübinger from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of my entrepreneur friends recently asked me if he “had to” register the logo for his company. I responded with, “How much would it suck if you had to rebrand?”

Why Register your Trademark
Your trademark is the name, logo, and other branding you put on your products so consumers can tell the difference between your brand and your competition’s. When you have a registered trademark for your brand, you can stop anyone from entering the market with a similar brand on a similar product as you. The law doesn’t like it when your competition tries to ride your coattails by looking too similar to your brand. When you register your trademark, your rights extend to everywhere in the United States, even if you’re not doing business everywhere in the country yet.

If you don’t register your brand, you can only get “common law” trademark rights that are limited to where you’re doing business with your mark. Your competition can use the same or similar brand where you haven’t established yourself. And if they register the brand before you, you may find yourself frozen only to your established marketplace, which may be quite small. Just ask the original Burger King restaurant what that’s like.

Cheaper than Rebranding
What does it cost to have a logo designed?
What about a website?

The fee to submit a trademark application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is $225-400, if it’s only for one type of product or service. Even with the fee to have a proper trademark lawyer submit and track the application, it’s often cheaper to apply for a registered trademark instead of rebrand. If someone else registers your trademark before you, you may be forced to rebrand if you want to continue to grow your business and expand your marketplace to reach more potential customers.

Brand Theft Happens
I have seen and worked on a number of situations where a company could have avoided a lot of heartache and legal bills if they had registered their trademark, because their competition registered the same or similar trademark before they did. Turner Barr essentially had his trademark, Around the World in 80 Jobs, stolen out from under him. He had to cease operations to address the situation. Thankfully for him, his story had a happy ending. Other companies are not as lucky.

A substantial portion of my work involves analyzing, registering, and challenging trademarks. If you need help with your trademark situation, you can contact me directly. I also post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Contract Amendments – Always in Writing

Signature by Sebastien Wiertz from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When a lawyer writes a contract for a client, it usually includes provisions that say that the all the terms of the agreement are contained in the document and all changes to the contract must be in writing. It may look something like this:

This Agreement is the entire understanding between the Parties concerning the subject of this Agreement. This Agreement replaces and supersedes any and all prior oral or written agreements and discussions between the Parties on that subject. All amendments to this Agreement must be in writing and signed by the Parties.

Contracts are relationship management documents. They keep everyone on the same page to prevent problems down the line or to help resolve problems when they occur. One of the challenges I encounter with contract clients is they often don’t follow the contract they signed and amend the agreement that is documented only in an email exchange, or worse, a undocumented verbal agreement.

Always Get It In Writing
The purpose of the “entire agreement” clause is to put all the terms of the contract in a single document. All written amendments should be stored with the original agreement – in hard copy and/or electronically, so if there is a question or dispute, the parties only need to review the single or amended document. They don’t have to piece together the contract from the parties’ communications and actions.

If you don’t get your amendments in writing, you’re asking for trouble. There could be confusion about what the change is, or worse, the other side could deny the existence of an amendment and screw you over. Remember, the law does not care about what you know, only what you can prove. If you don’t get your amendments in writing, and you have an “entire agreement” clause, if you have to go to court, the judge could say the amendment doesn’t exist.

Contract Amendments Can Be Easy
Why don’t people put their contract amendments in writing. I suspect it’s because they think it will be a hassle, cause a delay in a project, be time-consuming, or maybe they don’t even think to put in it writing because “it’s not a big deal.” In general, contracts exist, not for when things go right, but when they go wrong. What you think is a minor verbal change when both sides are getting along can become a big problem if things turn sour.

If you spend $100s or $1,000s to have a lawyer draft your contract, don’t revise it without their involvement. You’ve invested time and money to protect your interests. You don’t want to inadvertently throw that away with a damaging and undocumented revision.

Contracts are your Friends
These are some of my guidelines when it comes to reading and drafting contracts:

  • Never sign a contract you don’t understand. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
  • Whomever writes a contract does so for their or their client’s benefit. Keep that in mind when a contract is written by the other side. (Lawyers have an obligation to represent their clients zealously.)
  • Substantial business contracts should always be reviewed by a lawyer to ensure it’s complete and protects your interests.

A contract should be written to protect everyone involved – to make sure everyone understands and agrees to the same course of action.

I’m constantly reviewing and drafting all types of contracts for clients. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, 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.

Legal Issues with Open Photoshoots

Parkwood Photography Studios, used with permission

Last week, I went to an open photoshoot/happy hour at Parkwood Studios. (They have a gorgeous space!) It’s a free monthly event for photographers and models of all skill levels and experience. There was an area set up with lights where anyone could model and shoot photos. The purpose is to give everyone an introductory experience working with a model in a studio environment. There was not a model release or TFP agreement for this event.

I went to this to network and to model. As a lawyer, I knew what I was getting into in regards to copyright and image rights. Of course, my analytical brain couldn’t stop strategizing what I’d do to integrate legal protection and information without disturbing the spirit of the event.

Who’s At Risk, Who’s Protected
There are three groups who should be interested in protecting themselves at an open shoot: the models, the photographers, and the studio. If I represented a studio that hosted an open shoot, I’d recommend having a release that states the studio is not responsible for anyone’s behavior. If there’s a dispute between a model and a photographer, that’s an issue to be resolved between the two of them.

One of my images from the open shoot. I look like a action hero.

Model Release and Copyright Notice
Even in the photography/modeling industry, a lot of people do not understand copyright and image rights. In an open photo shoot, the model and photographer exchange their time, talents, and the opportunity to practice their respective crafts. Unless stated otherwise in a written agreement, whomever took the photo owns the copyright.

The expectation at these events is that photographers and models exchange contact information so the photographer can share images with them, and that the models are allowed to put the images in their portfolios or share on social media. I suspect the studio would also want a license to the use any images taken at the event that they receive or that are posted to their social media to promote future events or the studio.

No Guarantees
The one of the complaint I heard from past events is models saying a photographers who took photos of them never sent any images. While that is poor form, the only way I can think to legally work around this is to have a “no guarantee” clause. There’s no guarantee the photographer will send the model photos and there’s no guarantee the photographer will get the shot they want.

Code of Conduct
Since this is an event for all experience levels – including fledglings – I recommend having a code of conduct that applies to everyone and the studio’s equipment. This would include basic things like “Always ask permission before touching a model,” “Don’t touch the lights or any equipment that’s not set up for use at this shoot,” “Give constructive feedback,” and “Be respectful – we’re all here to learn and have fun.” A lot of these are common sense, but it’s good to state the obvious for people for whom it might be their first time shooting in this type of environment.

For studios like Parkwood that host regular events, I suggest creating reusable poster-sized copies of the rules and release and put it on the door leading to the photoshoot area with a notice that says by entering the room, you agree to these expectations. For anyone who wants to shoot photos or model, put a clipboard with a dated copy of the agreement and a signature page where everyone must agree to the rules before they’re allowed to participate. This serves multiple purposes:

  • It gives photographers and models experience with reading and signing these agreements.
  • It creates expectations and helps avoid conflict for all involved.

I get questions every day about photography, image rights, and copyright. For anyone who works as a photographer or model, it’s imperative that you understand these topics. Many disputes can be avoided with well-written contracts and accurate information. I’m constantly doing work in this area, so if you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, 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.

Lawsuit Filed to Unmask Anonymous Penis Sender

Don’t Mess with Texas by Jamie from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, Melody Lenox filed a lawsuit in Dallas County, Texas for a court order to determine who sent her a penis-shaped gummy candies via Dicks By Mail.

At first, this sounded like an extreme reaction. If someone spent $15 to send me candy via mail with a note that says “Eat a Bag of Dicks,” I’d probably laugh, and then eat them – because gummy candies are delicious. However, learning about the larger context of the situation, Lenox’s reaction seems reasonable.

The Bigger Story
Lenox is the head of human resources at Axxess Technology Solutions, a position that requires her to be the bearer of bad news to some employees. Prior to this unsolicited dick package, she allegedly had her car keyed and was the target of fake posts on Craigslist. She asserts that these acts are related.

In this context, pursuing a harassment lawsuit against the sender of these candies (assuming the same person(s) are committing these acts), makes sense. Ongoing acts like this are unacceptable.

What I suspect is happening in this case is Lenox filed a lawsuit against John Doe and then requested a court order to get the purchase information from Dicks By Mail. (Many companies have privacy policies that state they’ll protect your information unless they are required to provide it in response to a court order.) While it’s easy to key a car or post a fake Craigslist post anonymously, sending candy by mail requires a credit card, which will eventually lead to a real person – the suspected harasser.

Unmasking the Anonymous
Anytime you do something anonymously, be prepared to be unmasked. When you act anonymously online, there’s always a digital paper trail that shows the IP address of the internet connection used, the GPS location of your smartphone, the profile information of an anonymous website or social media profile, and in this case, the credit card information used for the transaction.

There have been plenty of situations where a person lost their job or found themselves in a lawsuit when their anonymous persona was unmasked. Using the internet is not an effective way to maintain your anonymity – unless you have mad skills in this area. (And if you have to question whether you have mad skills, you don’t.)

More about Dicks By Mail

Photo from Dicks By Mail

Dicks By Mail is a hilarious way to send a light-hearted sugar-filled message. The company does not endorse the use of their service to threaten or bully someone. If you receive Dicks By Mail it should only be for two reasons: “[S]omeone thinks you’re either a dick or wanted you to laugh!”

And they do caution people who come to the site with vindictive intent: If you are sending this with the intent to ruin someone’s day, then maybe it’s you who needs to eat a bag of dicks.”

In case you were wondering, yes, Dicks By Mail is a U.S.-based business, so if you want to stimulate the economy while telling your elected officials what you think of them, this may be a creative way to send a message (though, it may not be effective since they won’t know it came from a constituent).

The laws that apply to the internet are constantly evolving as the courts are encountering more internet-based problems. If you want to connect with me to keep up with my thoughts 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 is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Copyright License for Commissioned Art

“and the years have wings, detail” by Olivia Kirby from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

There are services that will print your photos and other artwork onto canvas – even in Walgreens. I recently heard of a situation where a customer commissioned an artist to create a portrait. The artist created the work and sent it to the customer as a JPG file, that the customer could use to get it printed onto paper or canvas. This may be a more efficient and cost-effective way for artists to create original pieces for customers.

The customer took the image to be printed on canvas, and the photo processor refused to do it without a release from the artist. I’d never heard of a printer requiring this, but the customer encountered this problem when they tried to use two different printers. To avoid such problems and delays in the future, the artist should provide a license with the JPG file for printing in case the customer is required to provide it.

Photo Processors and Copyright Infringement
Should photo processors be concerned about customers using their services to make unlawful copies of another person’s work? Probably not. I suspect a customer that comes in with a JPG to create one photo product is likely not committing copyright infringement. Of course, there’s an exception for art that is so well-known that a reasonable person would recognize the likelihood of infringement.

One way a photo processor could protect themselves from accusations of contributory copyright infringement would be to include a check box on the order form where the customer attests that they own or have permission to use the image in this way and indemnify the photo processor in the event of infringement lawsuit and with reimbursement for all related costs and damages. I know the company I use to print my custom t-shirts has this on their order forms.

License for Commissioned Work
This problem sounds like it’s easy to fix: the artist can add a licensing provision to the agreement that specifies upon payment in full, the customer will receive a JPG of the work and a license for how the customer may use it. That provision can specify that the artist retains ownership of the copyright and the customer may have the unaltered JPG printed on paper, canvas, and any other permitted medium for personal use (which may involve soliciting the services of a third party printer). That should hopefully be enough to satisfy the concerns of any printing service.

The artist may want to add other licensing terms, such as it’s a non-exclusive, paid-in-full, royalty-free license, whether the license is perpetual or time limited, how many prints the customer may make, and any other permissions or restrictions the artist wants to impose of their work. An intellectual property lawyer can provide more information about what provisions to include in such an agreement.

I was surprised to hear about this situation, especially if the customer only asked for one print. I would expect the order to be more extreme to raise a red flag for a printer, but on the other hand, I’m pleased to see printers being mindful about what they’re being asked to create. The laws and rights related to intellectual property are complicated and always situation-dependent. If you want to connect with me about your intellectual property rights as a consumer or an artist, 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.