How to Use the Attorney General to Go After Bad Clients

“Stairs to Subway” by Giuseppe Milo from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the frustrations I hear about from entrepreneurs is getting stiffed – either they paid a company to do a job and they didn’t perform, or they did a project or task for a client and they didn’t pay. In many of these situations, the amount in question is low enough that it’s not worth it to hire a lawyer or even put in the time and effort to take the other side to small claims court.

Even if a client hires us to send a demand letter, there’s always the risk that the other side won’t comply, and then they’ll be in the same position as before, but now they have our bill to pay too.

If the client in question is a business, there may be options to go after them through the government at no cost to you.

Attorney General Consumer Complaints

Check the Attorney General’s (AG’s) Office website for the state where your non-performing client lives (not where you live if you live in a different state). For every state that I’ve checked for a client to date, the AG’s Office has had a division or at least a page on their website for consumer complaints. Typically, it’s a form where you provide your contact information, a summary of the situation, and the remedy you want.

If the AG’s Office thinks your complaint has merit, they’ll investigate the situation, including them sending a copy of your complaint to the company and with a firm deadline for providing a response. Even if your client didn’t respond to a demand letter from you or your lawyer, they will likely be more inclined to respond to the AG’s Office.

In my experience, companies are motivated to resolve these matters quickly and avoid the risk of having fraud charges filed against them. This may result in the client paying you, performing as they were supposed to, or giving you your money back.

Pros and Cons of Going Through the AG’s Office

Pro: It’s free to file a complaint. You don’t need a lawyer to do it; however, it may be prudent to have a lawyer help you fill out the form to make sure you’re presenting the most compelling argument in light of the applicable laws. Your lawyer may know the key phrases to use to convince the AG’s Office to take your complaint more seriously than if you’d written it by yourself.

Con: You have less control over the situation. If the AG’s Office pursues the matter and files a complaint in court against your client, you will not be the plaintiff. The state will be the plaintiff. You will be less involved in the negotiations and settlement (assuming there is one).

Pro: It’s less work for you. If you were pursuing this matter directly against your client, such as filing a lawsuit, there could be meetings and calls with you lawyers, documents to review, and other work where you would need to be involved. Or if you were doing it on your own and going to small claims court, you would still have to prepare your Complaint (lawsuit), file it, get the other person served, and show up for your court date.

The AG’s Consumer Complaint is the Hidden Alternative

Most people I’ve spoken with about these types of business challenges, don’t know about Consumer Complaints. I’ve suggested it at least three times in the last two weeks to friends and clients alike. I can’t say this option is available in every state, but it’s worth investigating if you have a non-performing client that’s a business.

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My Blatantly Honest Lawyer Bio

In response to the infamous Venn diagram by Matthew Homann that suggests that most of the information lawyers put on their bios does not answer prospective clients’ questions, I asked my lawyer and non-lawyer friends what information they wanted to see.

Their responses inspired me to write the most blatantly honest bio I could for myself:

Ruth B. Carter

Of Counsel (legalese for “independent contractor”)

Practicing law since 2012

Law School: Arizona State University

Other Degrees: Oregon State University – Honors Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Chemistry Minor; Master of Science in Counseling

Email: rcarter@venjuris.com

Practice Areas: Intellectual Property, Internet Law, Business Law, Litigation

Current Rate: $275/hour (as of Sept. 8, 2019). Flat fees are available on certain non-adversarial projects, like submitting a trademark application.

What I Am Really Good At:

  • Persuasive Writing – like nasty-grams and court filings
  • Contracts, including terms of service and privacy policies – I use my past work as guidance
  • USPTO Trademark Applications – including keeping you informed throughout the process, even when the update is that there is no update
  • Explaining how the law works in plain English

Have I Worked on Cases Exactly Like Yours?

Please email me a summary of your situation, and I’ll let you know. If I’ve blogged or created a video about your type of legal problem, I’ve probably worked on a similar case.

Will I Work my Ass Off for You?

Yes.

Do I Take Cases on Contingency?

No.

What About for Partial Ownership of Your Startup?

Absolutely not.

Can You Have Payment Plan?

Officially, no.  In reality, probably yes.

I get that legal work is expensive, and not everyone has thousands of dollars in their rainy day fund. In general, I don’t mind if clients pay me over time as long as they’re making consistent payments every month. The partners at the firm aren’t a fan of this, but they don’t make a fuss if you’re paying your balance down every month. You must pay your filing fees before I will file anything on your behalf.

Few things make me feel more disrespected than clients who ghost me in paying their bill when I’ve worked my ass off for them. Additionally, I’m in an eat-what-you-kill environment. My income is directly related to my clients paying me for my work. I do not have a guaranteed salary.

What do I Like about Being a Lawyer?

I get to work on challenging projects, and I get to help people in a way that they often can’t do for themselves. The areas of IP and internet law are constantly evolving, and the law, at best, is barely keeping up with technology.

How Long Do I Take to Respond to Emails?

My goal is to respond to emails within 24 hours, 48 hours if I’m super busy. If you haven’t heard back within 72 hours, please ping me again. Your message may have gotten buried in my inbox.

Can You Call Me?

Unless I’ve told you to call, please don’t. My outgoing message says don’t leave a voicemail. Send me an email instead. If you call when I’m not expecting it, I probably won’t pick up, and here’s why:

When I’m doing client work, I want to give the client my undivided attention. If you make my phone light up (I turned the ringer off years ago), you will distract me, and it will take me that much longer to get my focus back. Ditto for the blinking you-have-a-message light, which will turn on even if you don’t leave a message. This is the same level of attention you will get when I’m working on your case.

Am I an Asshole?

No. However, I regularly say that I’m not a nice person; I occasionally do nice things.

Will I Call You Out When You’re Wrong?

Of course. That’s my job. I will listen and validate your perspective, and then tell you how it really is. Sometimes the law doesn’t make sense.

Do People You Respect Like Me?

I hope so, but you’d have to ask them. About half of my clients find me through word-of-mouth referrals. You can always look up my recommendations on LinkedIn.

New Photographers: Signed Contracts Needed at the Start of Every Project

“He Walks Dogs” by Damian Gadal from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I recently heard a question from a new photographer. They are new to the business and focused on building their brand and rapport with potential clients. Their question was, “Should I have a contract on hand at the beginning stages of my business?”

My response was an emphatic: “Yes!”

Photography Contracts: Every Job, Every Time

A contract is a relationship management document. It puts everyone on the same page about what each side is giving and getting and sets the expectations about how each side should behave.

I tell my photographer clients to never accept a job without a signed contract, this applies even to TFP shoots (trade for photos). Your contract should outline what the client is hiring you to do, how/when you’ll be compensated, how the client can use the images, and who owns the copyright. It should also have terms that address how problems will be resolved.

If the Prospect Balks at a Contract

If you have a prospective client who says they “don’t think a contract is necessary,” turn and run. This raises to red flags for me: either they don’t understand how the business works, or they have devious reasons for not wanting a contract that could bite you in the butt in the future.

One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was, “You never regret the client you didn’t take.” I have had no regrets about declining a representation when a client balks at how I do business. Every time I decline one of these clients, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.

Don’t Worry that Requiring a Contract will Push Clients Away

Don’t worry about being perceived as “pushy” my holding firm that a contract is required. You can be polite and respectful while say, “This is how I do business. If you don’t want to sign a contract, that’s fine, but you won’t be working with me.”

You set the rules for how you work with clients. If they balk at your contract (assuming it’s reasonable), they shouldn’t be your client. A reasonable client would expect you to require a contract. A person with any business acumen won’t want to work with you without one.

Let the prospects who don’t want contracts to self-select out. If you have problems with a client at the beginning of the relationship, it’s an indicator that they will be problematic throughout the project.

If the prospect asks for a referral to another photographer, I recommend saying, “All the reputable photographers I know won’t take on a client without a signed contract.”

It’s Cheaper and Easier to Prevent Legal Problems than to Fix Them

This has been proven time and time again in my legal career. When a client comes to me with a business dispute, one of my first questions is, “What does your contract say?” When my client doesn’t have a contract, I have to piece together the terms of their agreement from emails, text messages, and the parties’ actions. Often my client spends more just having me piece these things together than what it would have cost them to have a custom contract template made.

Additionally, in a dispute, it’s much easier to create a demand letter than references the terms the other side agreed to and back them into a corner where they have to try to defend the indefensible rather than assert what the terms of the agreement are from the assembly of bits and pieces of communications and actions that the other side can more easily debate.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you need help with your photography contracts and managing client expectations, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common questions professional photographers face, including what terms to include in every contract template. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list to stay in the loop, and get first dibs on discounts!

Photographer Disputes: What Happens If You Don’t Deliver

https://www.flickr.com/photos/76377775@N05/8560939745
Las Fallas Valencia Spain Angry Woman” by Keith Ellwood from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

As I was researching photographers’ legal questions, I stumbled onto a question posted by an upset client: “The photographer hasn’t given me my photos. It’s been six months. What can I do about that?”

Whoa! That sounds exceptionally bad. I’m curious how complex this project was and when the photographer said they’d deliver images to the client.

I don’t know the circumstances regarding this person’s situation, but here’s what could happen if a client is unsatisfied with your work, or worse, you fail to deliver as promised.

Check the Contract’s Dispute Resolution Provision

Whenever anyone comes to me with a business dispute, like “They didn’t pay me,” or “I didn’t get what I paid for,” the first question I ask is:

What does your contract say?

Your photography contract should have a dispute resolution provision that states how disputes are going to be resolved, where it’s going to be resolved, and which state law governs the agreement.

One of the most common dispute resolution clauses I put in photography contracts says if there’s a dispute, the parties will try, in good faith, to resolve the matter within 30 days. If that doesn’t resolve the matter, then the parties agree to resolve the matter is a court located in Maricopa County, Arizona, and the agreement is governed by Arizona law. (I recommend Maricopa County and Arizona law because that’s where I’m located. You don’t want to pay for your lawyer’s travel expenses if you don’t have to.) I usually include a clause that says the losing party must pay the prevailing party’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

Regardless of what the contract states about resolving disputes, my first step in most disputes is sending a demand letter that puts the other side on notice that further legal recourse will be sought. This letter lets the other side know that the offended party is serious and willing to fight, and it gives them a chance to resolve the matter before it will be taken to the next level.

Report to the Attorney General’s Office for Consumer Fraud

You may not know this, but your state’s Attorney General’s Office may have a forum to submit a consumer complaint and report suspected fraud. Arizona has this, and it’s not a fun process to go through the subsequent investigation, which could include being subpoenaed for a deposition under oath and/or having a claim for fraud filed against you. If a court found that you committed fraud, it could have devasting consequences for your business, including your ability to be a professional photographer. Taking a client’s money and failing to provide the images could easily be an act of fraud.

If a client wanted to pursue this option, they don’t need a lawyer to file a consumer complaint. They can go online and get the form themselves. The Attorney General’s Office would foot the bill for the investigation, and likely expect to be reimbursed by you if you lose or come to a settlement. Conversely, if a consumer complaint is filed against you, you should hire a lawyer to represent you.

Bad Review

The least problematic a dissatisfied client could do is leave you a negative review on Google, Yelp, or Facebook, or they could post about you online on their social media accounts or their website. As long as everything they post about you is true or their opinion, it’s perfectly legal.

Hopefully, you never find yourself in this type of situation, but if it happens, please don’t ghost your client. Keep the lines of communication open as you work towards a resolution. One of the most common complaints I hear from customers is that the person they hired stopped responding to emails, calls, or texts, and so they felt like they had no choice but to ask a lawyer or the state for help.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you want help with the business or legal side of being a photographer, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common problems professional photographers face, including contracts, copyright, and managing client expectations. Please add yourself to this exclusive list for updates on the course and helpful information leading up to the release.

Lawyer Responds to Photographers’ Problems

“Photo Shoot” by Cliff from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, I saw a thread in an online photography group that started with a simple question: “What problems do you face as a photographer?” After reading hundreds of the responses, I wanted to respond to some of their problems as both a lawyer and an entrepreneur:

Competition – Other Photographers Offering Half the Price

My first thought when I read this was, “There’s a good chance it’s also half the quality.” You never want to be in a race to the lowest price. Instead of worrying about price, focus on what makes you different from the competition.

If someone wants a cheap photographer to document their once in a lifetime event, like their wedding, that’s their choice. If I were facing a client who said, “I can get someone to photograph my wedding at half this price,” I hope my response would be something like, “This is your special day. You have to choose who you trust to capture these moments for you.”

Personally, I have no problem when a client self-selects out from working with me if they don’t want to pay my rate. It’s better that they decide that early and go with someone else.

This problem reminds me of a sign I saw in a tattoo parlor: “Good tattoos aren’t cheap. Cheap tattoos aren’t good.” The same is likely true for photographers.

Clients Don’t See What We’re Worth

Part of being an entrepreneur is educating prospective client about the value we bring. It’s not that skilled photographers cost so much, but they’re worth so much. Some of the ways you can do this is by having a high-quality portfolio and a stellar reputation.

Remember: You’re not just taking photos; you’re creating an experience – every interaction from the first “hello” to the final deliverable. Your ability to take and edit photos are important, but so are the way you carry yourself, how you communicate, and your creativity, work ethic, and confidence in your skills. All of those things add or detract from your value as an artist. You want to be in a position where people want to hire you, not just any photographer.

I had a similar situation when I hired the designer who created the logos for Scarlet MavenTM and Lights Camera LawsuitTM. I could have used a discount service like 99 Designs or Fiverr, but I didn’t want to entrust a stranger with this task. I wanted to work with Square Peg Creative and Dina Miller. I’d seen and loved the way she created. I was willing to pay extra for that experience, and the resulting logos that I love.

How to Tell People I’m a Proper Photographer

The best way to tell people that you’re a professional photographer is to act like one. Create a business entity, a website with a portfolio, and contract templates for your services. If you want people to take your seriously, you have to act like a professional.

Speaking of Contracts

Contracts are relationship management documents. Once a client signs the contract, they are bound by its terms. Whenever there’s a problem, you can refer back to the contract and the terms they already agreed to. This is where you can put information like,

  • The deposit is non-refundable.
  • The photographer chooses the best images to show client. The client will not get raw images.
  • There’s no guarantee you’ll capture every image the client was hoping for.
  • The client is not allowed to edit the final images. This includes adding filters or stickers or cropping the images.

There’s a video I recommend to almost every entrepreneur called F*ck You, Pay Me, that features a graphic designer and his lawyer talking about how they use contracts to make sure the client pays per the contract’s terms. The suggestions work for many types of professional creatives.

Clients with High Expectations and Low Budgets

While many people don’t like talking about money, it is a topic you want to discuss early in the vetting process by either giving the prospective client your price list or asking about their budget. Don’t be afraid to be frank with clients who have expectations that are way beyond what they can afford. Tell them what they can afford based on their budget, as well as what you could do if they are willing to pay more so they can make an educated decision about what they want.

Clients Who Try to Negotiate on Price

In the photographer-client relationship, they are hiring you. You get to decide what is and is not negotiable in your contract. If your rates are not negotiable, be clear about that the first time they ask.

In my practice, I hand pick who are my pro bono clients and who gets a discount. That’s my call, not the other way around.

Here’s a tip I saw from another photographer: Make your prices all-inclusive. Don’t list separate prices for shooting and editing, because it opens the door for clients to try to haggle on one or the other.

Companies that Want You to Work for Free or Magazines that Want to Use Images for Free

Oh, it’s so cute when people want you to work for “exposure.” You get to decide how you respond to those requests. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Exposure is not a currency that my landlord accepts.
  • I can’t pay my mortgage with exposure.
  • People die of exposure.

Chasing Payments

Ideally, you want to create a photographer-client relationship where it’s easier to comply with the terms of the contract and pay on time, than not. Many photographers charge a non-refundable deposit to book a shoot or event and require the balance to be paid in by the day of the shoot or event. At the latest, I don’t recommend a photographer provide proofs unless they’ve been paid for the shoot.

You also want to have terms in your contract about cancelled appointments, late payments, and non-payments, so that you set yourself up to get paid what you’re owed in a timely manner.

Are You Free Next Week?

You can put the information about how far in advance a prospective client should expect to book you near your contact information or in your FAQs if you have them.  

People Assuming You will Photoshop them Perfect

This problem reminds me of Christian Siriano on Project Runway when he said, “I’m not a miracle worker, lady. I can’t make you have an ass!”

In talking with your client, set some expectations about what Photoshop can and can’t do. Assume your client doesn’t know anything about photography, unless they are a professional photographer themselves. You can educate your clients by showing them before and after images so they can see the type of edits you’ll be doing for them.

It’s ok to have fun with it, if that’s your style, by saying things like, “If you’re 5’2”, I can’t make you 5’10”,” or “If you have a ‘dad bod,’ I can’t transform you into Thor.” On the softer, more realistic side, remind your client that it’s your job to capture them looking their best, not like someone else.

Bonus Tips from my Experience as Model: Posing

Several people said they had problems with posing models or giving direction. As a model, my response is, “Don’t be afraid to try.” You’re the one behind the camera. I can’t see how I look.

If you give a model a pose and it doesn’t create a good image, try something else. I won’t know if you didn’t get the shot you wanted. I’ll think you have lots of ideas.

It’s ok to think out loud and say things such as, “I like how this light is hitting your eyes, let’s try this.”

I’ve you are afraid you won’t remember the ideas you wanted to try from other images, bring notes to the shoot. It shows you’re prepared, and thinking about what types of images might be best for me.

Learning how to pose models and give direction is something you develop over time, with practice, and watching others. Unless you’re doing some extreme work, no one is going to die. And don’t forget – I can’t see how I look, so as far as I know, whatever you’re trying is brilliant.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you’re looking for help with the business or legal side of being a photographer, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common problems professional photographers face, including contracts, copyright, and managing client expectations. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop, and get additional helpful information leading up to the release.

How to Give a Discount on your Photography Services without Discounting your Value

The Belly Dancer with the Fans” by mmockingbird from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Sometimes photographers, like all service providers, want to provide a discount for their services. Perhaps it’s for a friend, someone you’ve always wanted to work with, or an organization you know can’t afford you and you want to help.

Nothing Wrong with a Discount

There is nothing wrong with offering a discount for your photography services, whether it’s a special one-off or a promotion that’s available to any client.

The challenge is you don’t want to cheapen the perceived value you provide. When a person buys an item at a cheap price, they may have lower expectations about it and will perceive it as less valuable than a similar product that performs the same function but costs twice as much. You don’t want your clients to discount the value you’re giving them, even when they get it at a discounted price.   

Have you noticed that it’s often the clients who are getting the biggest discounts who complain the most? I made that mistake once. I quoted someone an exceptionally low flat fee to do their contract because I thought it would be an easy project. The nitpicked so much and requested so many changes, that by the time it was done, the amount I made per hour of work was laughable. (This was also the client who taught me to put a cap on the number of edits I’d do on a flat fee project. If they wanted more edits after that, they had to pay hourly.)

Always Show a Photography Client your Value

Even when you give a client a discount, always include your standard price and then the discount. Being a professional photographer is two jobs in one – you’re an artist and an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur’s job includes educating clients and prospects what you are worth. Photography clients are not just paying for your time, but also your talents. Remind them about the value you bring to the table, regardless of what they’re paying.

This tactic is not offensive.  You see this when you buy things online. The website always starts by posting the price and tells you how much of a discount they’re giving you and the price you’re getting.

How to Write an Invoice or Contract with a Discount

This is how I’d write an invoice or payment section of a photography contract that includes a discount:

Sitting Fee:                       $200.00

I-Like-You Discount:           -$75.00

Total Sitting Fee:               $125.00

You get to choose what you’re going to call your discounts. I encourage my clients to be creative and include their personality in their contracts, but you have to decide what works for you.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you need help with your photography contracts and managing client expectations, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common questions professional photographers face, including how to explain these concepts in plain English. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (Psst! People on this list also get first dibs on discounts!)

Clarify What Your Photography Client is Buying: Prints vs Digital License

“Shooting the Dress” by Garry Knight from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Professional portrait photographers generally need at least two contracts when working with a client: one for the sitting and one for the deliverables. For the latter, make sure the client is crystal clear about what they are, and equally important, what they are not buying. Having clarity on the front end will prevents problems on the back end.

Assume Clients Don’t Understand Copyright

Part of your job as a professional photographer is to educate your client about the basics of copyright and how it applies to images you’ve been hired to create. Many people assume that they are allowed to take a print, scan it, and share online or via email.

In my pre-lawyer life, that’s what I thought. I spent plenty of time in the computer lab during my undergrad scanning photos. There was even a bulletin board dedicated to the photos that people left in the machine.

This is still an issue for Joe Average people. Here’s a real question that recently came across my screen: I hired a photographer to take family pictures. I want to share them online and with extended family. The photographer says I can’t do that. Why?

I suspect this person bought prints and not a digital license, or they have a license but it doesn’t include an allowance to distribute the images.

As a risk-adverse lawyer, I would put specific verbiage in the contract that states what the client can and can’t do with the photos, including that only the digital version the photographer provides can be used to share the images with family and friends, probably in bold print.

This serves two purposes:

  1. It protects your copyright, and
  2. It maintains the quality of your work.

It’s also a good idea to include the information about your socials so they can tag you. (Good clients give credit their photographer when posting images online, even if they’re not required to.)

What the Client gets with Prints

When a client buys prints, they are buying the tangible object – the picture on whatever medium it was printed. They are buying the thing. They are not getting the copyright right or any copyright rights (unless that’s part of the contract they signed).

The limits of what someone can do with a print are similar to what they can do if they bought a book. They can display it, sell it, give it away, destroy it, etc. What they can’t do is make copies of it.

Scanning a print is making a copy. So is taking a photo of the photo.

I’ve seen people do this at amusement parks. They don’t want to buy the photo the park took of them on the rollercoaster, so they take a photo of the screen where the image is displayed – so they take photo of the photo. When I’ve seen this happen, the teenage clerk usually says, “We’re not supposed to let people do that.” Now you know why. 

What the Client gets with a Digital License

What a client can do with a digital license depends on the limits within the license itself.

Whoever owns a copyright has the exclusive right to control if and how the work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. If I were writing a license for a photographer, I’d address all five of these rights – including “perform,” even though that’s not a verb we typically use in regards to photographs, but I’d rather be thorough.

Most of the time, the photography licenses I draft are for a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license. It also addresses whether the licensee is allowed to use the images for commercial use. Sometimes the photographer requests additional provisions, like one that says the licensee isn’t allowed to alter the images, which may include cropping.

Following the license provision, I often add a sentence that states all other uses of the images must be approved by the photographer in advance.

Solution: All Print Packages Include a Digital License

One way to address this issue to require clients to purchase a digital license when they’re purchasing prints. The client won’t have to scan any images if they already have digital versions.

When you first meet with a client to discuss their needs, ask them about what they want to do with the final images, including how they want to show them to others. If you hear a client talking about how they can’t wait to share the photo with family/friends – clarify what they mean and make sure purchase a package that suits their needs.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you need help with your photography contracts and managing client expectations, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common questions professional photographers face, including how to explain these concepts in plain English. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (Note: This venture is separate from my law practice, and this list is completely independent from the Carter Law newsletter.)

How to Respond When Someone Steals Your Photo

Running with the Seagulls by Ed Schipul from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Photographers need to be mindful of the possibility that some people may use their photos without permission. People will pull images to use on their website and social media posts. Additionally, there are people who think they have rights to a photo merely because they’re in it. I’ve even heard of hair and makeup artists who take photos from the shoots they have worked on to use them in their portfolio.

This issue is compounded by the fact that there is inaccurate information about photo use on the internet. Some sources assert that you can use any photo you find on the internet as long as you give an attribution and a link to the original. They think they’re giving you free publicity, but what they may be doing is committing copyright infringement and telling you about it.

Start with the End in Mind

When I work with clients who believe their copyright has been violated, one of the first question I ask is,

How do you want this to end?

Knowing what the client wants as a result of my work tells me what avenue for recourse they’re interested in pursuing.

To maximize the likelihood of achieving your desired outcome, it’s best to decide before your photos are stolen how you want to respond to the alleged infringer so you can be prepared in advance for when it happens.

Always Respond When Someone Uses Your Photo Without Permission

You don’t set the precedent that people can use your photos without a license. If you let others use your work and then you want to assert your rights against another infringer, the infringer could point to your past behavior and argue that since you’ve allowed others to use your images without repercussions, that this new infringer should be treated the same.

(This is why you hear about companies sending strongly worded cease and desist letters to minor infringers. They have an obligation to protect their intellectual property.)

There are five ways you can respond when someone steals your photo:

Option #1: Grant Permission

If you’re ok with someone’s use of your image, you can grant them permission after the fact. It can be something simple like

Hi there. I noticed you’re using my photo for XYZ. I’m ok with uses like this, but in the future, you need to ask my permission in advance. I grant you permission for this use.

Option #2: Cease and Desist Letter

This is a letter from you (or your lawyer) to the suspected infringer that informs them of the copyright rights they violated, directs them to remove the image by a specified date, and tells them what you’ll do if they don’t comply. Be ready to follow through on whatever you threaten/promise in your letter, or you’ll lose credibility.

These are sometimes referred to as the “nastygram,” especially when it’s written by a lawyer and the client’s goal is to put the fear of god in the person so they comply. There is no rule that says you can’t send a letter that says,

I love that you love my photo, but you need to remove it by . . .

Option #3: DMCA Takedown Notice

DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This option is only available in situations where your photo and the infringement of it are both on the internet. Instead of sending a cease and desist letter to the person who stole your photo, you send a takedown notice to the company that hosts the website where the infringement is occurring. Some social media platforms have a form on their site for submitting a takedown notice with designated spaces for all the information you’re required to include in a DMCA takedown.

Option #4: Send a Bill and a License

There is at least one photo licensing company that is notorious for doing this, but any photographer can send (or have their lawyer send) a letter to the suspected infringer that says,

By using my photo, you’ve agreed to my licensing terms. Here’s a copy of the license and your bill!

If you want to use this option, it’s ideal if you have your licensing terms or at least information about licensing on your website.

Option #5: Sue for Copyright Infringement

This option requires the most work in advance compared to the other options because you must register the photo’s copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to be eligible to sue for infringement. There are time constraints in which you have to register you work in to be eligible for statutory damages, including attorneys’ fees. Additionally, your photo has to be stolen by someone who can afford to pay the damages, otherwise you may never collect (and you’ll likely have to pay for your attorney yourself).

If registered your photo too late, you can still sue, but you can only get your actual damages, and you have to pay your attorneys’ fees. Most of the time, in this situation, it’s not worth it to sue because you’ll spend more on your attorney than what you’d get in damages from the court.

What’s the Right Option to Protect Your Photography?

You have to make that decision yourself. Decide in advance how you want to respond when someone steals your photo and plan accordingly.

Your strategy for responding to suspected copyright infringement can include more than one of these options – such as sending a cease and desist letter yourself and if that doesn’t work, then have your attorney send one. Some people are more motivated to comply when they see the law firm’s letterhead.

Regardless of your strategy, it’s best to speak with your attorney in advance and consult them when dealing with someone who’s using your photos without permission. There have been many times that I’ve written the cease and desist letter for my client to send that included the sentence,

I hope we can resolve this without having to get lawyers involved.

Lights Camera Lawsuit

I’m creating an online course called “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography,” that will address the legal issues most pertinent to professional photographers, including hours of lessons about copyright. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (Note: This venture is separate from my law practice, and this list is completely independent from the Carter Law newsletter.)

Can I Shoot Here? Photography Rules at Public Events

https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnrabbit/8660242398
“The Lights of Simian Mobile Disco” by John Rabbit from Flickr
(Creative Commons License)

Public events present fantastic opportunities for photographers to take captivating photos, but before you pull out your camera, you need to understand some of the legal do’s and don’ts of shooting in public.  

What is “Public?”

What is public versus private is a challenging question for some people to comprehend. There is a difference between being “in public” and being on “public property.” Many places where the public is invited to be, such as shopping malls, convention centers, fairgrounds, and stadiums are in public because you’re in a place where many members of the general public can see you, but you’re still on private property, and can be asked to leave if you’re breaking the rules.  

Even when events are on public property, like street fairs and events at public parks, these areas are like private property for the purpose of the event. The organizers likely obtained an event permit from the city, part of which gave them permission to enforce stricter rules regarding photography than what you would have to follow if you were merely walking down a public street.

Their Event. Their Rules.

When you want to shoot at an event, try to find the photography rules. When you enter the event, look for notices. Many times, the organizers post a notice that says by entering the premises, you agree that the event organizers can take your picture and use the images for any purpose. These notices do not apply to you unless you are a photographer hired for this purpose.

Here’s where you can look for information about whether you can legally take photos at an event.

  • If the event is on private property, look for a list of rules on the wall. Many shopping malls and stores have rules that prohibit shooting photos or video on the premises.
  • If you are attending a sporting event or concert, check the back of your ticket. If there is fine print, that is likely a contract between you and the event or venue, which may include terms about taking photos.
  • Check the website for the event or venue to see if they are specific rules regarding photography at the event. Many times, this is in the frequently asked questions (FAQ) section. If the event is out in the open, like at a park or fairground, I would not expect there to be rules that prohibit photography, but I have seen “No Photography” signs on vendor booths at art festivals where artists were selling original works.

Rules of Thumb for Shooting Photography in Public

Here are some general rules when taking photos at public events.

1. Don’t be creepy. Don’t stare at people, follow them around, or act like a stalker. I’ve heard about this type of behavior at cosplay events, including a few years ago at Phoenix Comicon where someone shot video of women without their consent, and posted a compilation where the purpose was to objectify them. (The video has since been removed.) Now, it’s more common to see rules at these events that include a zero tolerance policy for this type of behavior.

2. Ask permission if you can take someone’s photo. This is particularly true if you’re taking photos of someone else’s child.

3. Be ready for questions from security, ushers, and/or event attendees. If you are using a high-end camera when most people are using their smart phones, you may raise suspicions. This is especially true if you or the person you’re shooting are doing anything abnormal.

As a former gymnast, I like to do handstands. When my friends and I went to an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game, I decided to do in the stands. We did it right before we left: I kicked a handstand, my friend took the picture, and we immediately walked up the stairs to leave. As expected, an usher stopped us as we reached the top. I was ready for him to say we needed to leave, but thankfully he was curious to know what we were doing.

Handstand at the Baseball Game, June 2010

4. Remember, if you don’t have a model release, you likely can’t use the images that contain identifiable persons for commercial purposes, including marketing yourself, without the risk of being accused of violating the person’s right of publicity. (Check your state’s law to see what the rules about publicity rights are before you take photos of others, especially strangers.)

5. When you are taking photos on public property – not at a private event, know the applicable laws. You may encounter people who make false statements about the law, and you have to correct them.

For example, Improv AZ has organized the No Pants Light Rail in Phoenix every year since 2009. It takes place on the public light rail system with the general public, and we have official photographers who ride with us, sans pants, to document it. One year, we encountered light rail security who tried to tell one of our photographers that he couldn’t bring his camera on board, because it would be a violation of the law. We stood in the door of the light rail car – one foot in the car, one foot on the platform – which forced the door to stay open, so our photographer wouldn’t get left behind. We explained the law to the security guard and asked him to call his supervisor, who confirmed that everything we were saying was true, and we continued with the Ride.

The best way I can encompass the rules for shooting photographs at public events is Be Aware, Be Thoughtful, and Make Good Decisions.

Lights Camera Lawsuit

I’m creating an online course called “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography,” that will address the legal issues most pertinent to professional photographers, including many of legal issues related to event photography as well as contracts and copyright law. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (This venture is separate from my law practice, and this list is completely independent from the Carter Law newsletter.)

When a Client Threatens to Leave a Bad Review

https://www.flickr.com/photos/yazuu/3053549142
Angry Guy by Adrian Tombu from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the scenario: A client hired you for a photography job, which you did, and you provided the deliverables on time. The client is unhappy with their photos, threatens to leave a bad online review if you don’t give them their money back.

What do you do?

You’re a Photographer, Not a Miracle Worker

Your client has put you in a difficult position. You have to work with what you’re given from the client. You don’t want to be insensitive, but you can only do so much. It may be impossible to give the client images that match what they envisioned in their head.

Many times, part of being an entrepreneur involves educating and managing the client’s expectations. Based on the client’s complaint, it may be prudent to review the images and see if there’s anything you can do, perhaps suggest additional edits than what they hired you to do or explain that this is best you could do given the constraints of the situation.

Ask Yourself the Difficult Question

Ask yourself the difficult question: Did you screw up? Do you owe this person additional edits, a re-shoot, or some type of compensation? If so, admit it.

As Peter Shankman says, “There is no greater lover than a former hater.” If you make a mistake, admit it, and make up for it, that person may become your biggest cheerleader.

Go Back to the Contract

When dealing with an upset client, having a well-written contract can help you resolve the matter and remind the client about what you both agreed to at the outset of your working relationship.

If the client is upset because you didn’t provide an image of certain pose, show them the provision that says there are no guarantees that they’ll get every pose or image they hoped for.

If the client wants to see all the images you took during the shoot, show them the provision that says you’ll only be showing them the best images and that they won’t see every image you take.

If the client says they shouldn’t have to pay because they’re unhappy, remind them that they hired you for your time and skills. Payment is expected if you fulfilled your obligations under the contract.

Hopefully, you have a photography contract that anticipated common complaints and addressed them accordingly.

You Can Always Cave to their Demand

Whether you give this person their money back is a business decision, not a legal one. You may decide that the best course of action, regardless of whether you think it’s warranted, is to give this person their money back and move on. That’s your call.

I recommend you decide in advance, just for yourself, the circumstances under which you’ll give a refund. Many photography contracts state that there are no refunds or that they are given only in rare specified situations.

If They Leave a Bad Review

If the client follows through on their threat and leaves a bad review, respond to it in a polite and respectful manner. You can say you’re sorry they’re upset and invite them to contact you directly to discuss it. (Many times, how you respond to a bad review isn’t about the upset client, but rather it’s an opportunity to demonstrate to anyone who reads it that you take client concerns seriously.)

In a perfect world, you’ll have enough positive reviews that one bad one won’t tank your average. But if you’re just starting out, one negative review could have a substantial impact on your score. You may want to invite happy customers to leave reviews about their experience to bring your average back up.

Lights Camera Lawsuit

I’m working on my first online course called “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography,” which will be released by my second company (separate from my law practice). Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with

tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (This list is completely independent from the CLF newsletter list.)