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.)

How to Write a Decent Trademark Cease and Desist Letter

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tangi_bertin/541603067/
Stop by tangi_bertin from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A friend recently forwarded me a trademark cease and desist letter he received and asked if it was anything they needed to worry about. Now, I always tell my clients to take such letters seriously, and give them their due consideration, but then I read this particular letter. It was possibly the worst cease and desist letter I’ve ever read. It was written by an entrepreneur, not a lawyer, so I automatically mentally cut the sender some slack, but still, it was bad.

If you’re in a situation where you suspected a competitor is violating your trademark rights, please get your lawyer involved. And if you’re going to write your own cease and desist letter, make it a decent one.

Make Sure Your Trademark has Likely been Infringed

A trademark has two components. It’s the name, logo, slogan, etc. that you’re claiming as a trademark plus the product or service on which you’re using it. (It’s possible for two completely different companies to have the same trademark, like Delta Dental and Delta Airlines.) For many companies, the first trademark they register is just the word or phrase that is the name of your company or product/service. This is called a “word mark.” It’s just words, no images, graphics, or sounds.

When you have a registered word mark and someone uses the same word or phrase, it’s not automatically a violation of your trademark rights. For example, Paris Hilton has registered trademarks for “That’s Hot” for “multimedia entertainment services” and apparel. These trademarks do not give her the ability to stop everyone from ever using the phrase “that’s hot,” as a descriptor. If a person is not using the word or phrase you registered as a trademark for their business, it’s likely not trademark infringement.

What to include in a Cease and Desist Letter

While I don’t endorse the idea of business owners writing their own cease and desist letters, it happens. If you’re going to write your own, these are some of the things I’d tell my client to include in their letter if they insisted on doing it themselves:

  • Provide the legal name of the person or company that owns the trademark,
  • Identify your trademark including the registration number and a screenshot of the trademark listing from the USPTO database,
  • Identify the alleged infringing activity, preferably with a URL and/or screenshot if it’s online or photographs if it is not, and
  • Clearly state what you want the recipient to do in response to your letter with a due date for compliance.

When to get the Lawyers Involved

If you encounter suspected trademark infringement, call your lawyer. Even if you want to send a cease and desist letter yourself, call your lawyer first. They can help you make sure there’s a real trademark issue that requires your attention and help you craft the cease and desist letter.

Many of my clients want to reach out to the alleged infringer to speak business owner to business owner, first. They want to send friendly but clear cease and desist letter, and give the other side a chance to resolve the matter “without having to get the lawyers involved.” I have helped write many a letter that included that phrase. The other side doesn’t need to know that I’m already involved.

If they don’t respond favorably to my client’s friendly letter, then I will follow it up with a strongly worded nastygram that demands that they cease all uses of my client’s intellectual property and failure to do so will result in litigation (or whatever consequences my client has selected).

My recommendation for clients is to refrain from making threats in cease and desist letters unless they’re willing to follow through with it. Otherwise, if the other side calls your bluff and you don’t follow through, you will lose all credibility and any further demand letters will likely be ignored.

If you threaten litigation in your cease and desist letter, be ready to pull the trigger if the suspected infringer doesn’t comply with your demands. Some people won’t take you seriously until a lawsuit has been filed. A lawsuit will force them to deal with the situation because of the court-imposed due dates or risk the effects of a default judgment if they ignore it.

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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.

Avoid Copyright Infringement in your Social Media Posts

+ I collect old cameras + Land camera 1000 w/ polatronic 1 {b} by PhotKing from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

+ I collect old cameras + Land camera 1000 w/ polatronic 1 {b} by PhotKing from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The other day I smiled when I saw a friend put a post on Facebook that included a Creative Commons attribution. He was the person who taught me how important it is, just from the perspective of respect, to get permission before posting another person’s work on your social media page. This was before I studied and fell in love with copyright.

Now, it warms my little lawyer heart to see someone respecting copyright.

And I finally have time to read Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, which is filled with helpful information on how to market your business and excellent demonstrative case studies. One of his lessons is to use each platform to suit the needs to the users. So if a site is visually-focused, like Facebook or Pinterest, you want to create posts that have images that will provide users value and hopefully they’ll share them. His book has great examples of how companies are doing this effectively and what habits you shouldn’t emulate.

This is when the red flag went up for me.

If a company’s marketing department created a photo, there’s no problem with copyright. But if a company is using someone else’s photo (because companies don’t just have to talk about themselves online), they have to deal with the question of whether they have permission to use the image in question.

A lot of companies appear to be thoughtful about making sure they are using their own photos or finding images via Creative Commons for their website or blog. However, they don’t apply the same standards to their social media posts. If you’re doing this, and pulling images from other site without getting permission from the copyright owner, you could be setting your company up to be accused of copyright infringement and face a cease and desist letter, a DMCA takedown notice, a bill, or possibly a lawsuit.

Legal Side of Blogging Book CoverI’ve been inspired by people who use social media effectively and find amazing images to incorporate into their posts. I hope to create more content on social media that’s worth sharing. If you’re in my boat, please make sure to use images you own or use Creative Commons. When I use Creative Commons, I only pull images that come with a license that let me modify (aka crop them) and commercialize them. And even on social media, give your photographer the attribution. You may be legally obligated to do it, and it’s also a sign of respect for their work.

If you need an effective legal resource written in layman’s terms on this topic, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It covers a lot of the major issues that apply to copyright and the internet. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.

Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

What Should You Do If Someone Steals Your Work

Attention - Man Stealing White Stripe by Julian Mason from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Attention – Man Stealing White Stripe by Julian Mason from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Copyright infringement appears to be rampant on the internet. Some people don’t understand that they can’t use anything they find online. They don’t understand that the law lets the copyright holder dictate where their work is displayed and distributed. Some people get defensive when they get caught and say you should be happy that you’re giving them exposure.  Others know it’s illegal and take the gamble that you won’t notice or that you won’t object if you see what they’ve done.

Make Sure It’s Your Work They Copied
People don’t always own what they think they own. Check your contracts to verify that you are the copyright owner and not just the creator of a work. Remember – employees don’t own the copyright in anything they create within the scope of their job but independent contractors retain the copyright in anything they create unless there’s a written copyright assignment or work made for hire contract. Additionally, two artists can independently come up with similar ideas for original works and it may not be problematic so long as they’re only claiming rights in what they created.

How Do You Want This To End?
This is the question I ask all my clients who are in a suspected intellectual property infringement situation. Their goal determines my course of action. Ideally you should determine how you want to react to infringement before it occurs so you can lay the foundation in advance for your desired outcome.

If you just want the infringer to take down your work, you can respond with one of the following:

If you want the alleged infringer to pay you for using your work you can send a bill or sue them for infringement. If you want to pursue one of these options, you definitely want to use a lawyer to contact the alleged infringer on your behalf or through the court.

If you’re OK with the person using your work, you should send them a notice that gives them permission and requests they ask permission before using your work in the future. You always want to respond when you suspect someone is using your work without consent. Otherwise you could create the impression that you’ve attached a blanket license for anyone to use your work which could hurt your chances of going after other suspected infringers in the future.

Please note – you can send a notice without being a jerk about it. Jack Daniel’s sent what’s been referred to as the nicest cease and desist letter when an author copied Jack Daniel’s label on his book cover.  You could write or ask your attorney to do something similar

If you need a legal resource about how to avoid problems related to copyright and trademark infringement online, I recommend my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It covers a lot of the major issues that apply to intellectual property and the internet. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.

Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Check the USPTO Database Before You Brand

Fake Brands (Weird News No. 4) by "Caveman Chuck" Coker from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Fake Brands (Weird News No. 4) by “Caveman Chuck” Coker from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I asked my friends who work in marketing, who create campaigns and brands for a living, whether they check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database before finalizing a project for a client. I was surprised when all of them said, “No.”  To me, this would be an obvious step in the brainstorming or idea development process.

Let’s go over a little bit about trademarks. A trademark is the name, slogan, logo, etc. you put on your company or products to differentiate them from your competition. A trademark has two components – the mark itself and your product or service. That’s why it’s permissible for two unrelated companies to have similar names – like Delta Faucets and Delta Airlines. You can’t put a trademark on your company or product that is so similar to your competition that consumers are going to be confused about what they’re buying.

If you create a brand but don’t register it with the USPTO, you only get common law protection for it which extends only as far as your geographic market. You also risk being in the Burger King situation where you could be limited in your ability to expand if someone registers your trademark after you’ve started using it.

When a company registers their trademark, they get the exclusive right to use their mark on their category of goods and services everywhere in the United States. No one can enter the marketplace with a confusingly similar name on similar products or services, even if they do it in a geographic area where the trademark owner isn’t doing business. They can send you a letter demanding that you rebrand or sue you for infringement. This happened to a friend of mine who had a dog training business that had a similar name to a dog trainer who lived across the country. Since the other guy registered his trademark for dog training, he had the authority to make my friend change her business’ name.

The USPTO trademark database isn’t that hard to use if you’re only looking up words. When you are researching potential names and slogans, make sure you look up various spellings of the word(s) and watch out for the word you want in other languages. It’s a good idea to verify with a trademark that the name or slogan you want as your trademark is available. You don’t want to invest a lot of time, money, and energy in creating a brand that you can’t have. I’ve worked with too many companies who have had to rebrand their company or a product because they got a cease and desist letter from someone who had registered the name.

I also made a video about the importance of checking the USPTO database when selecting a brand.

I’m also a huge advocate of registering the trademark in your blog because if someone else takes your name, it can essentially shut down your site. If you want to chat more about trademarks, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Why You Have to Respond to Suspected IP Infringement

Cease and Desist by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Cease and Desist by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A few weeks ago we all had a good laugh when Jeff Briton, owner of Exit 6 Pub and Brewery in Cottleville, Missouri got a cease and desist letter from Starbucks when he named one of his craft beers “Frappicino.” Starbucks said this was too similar to their Frappuccino and even took the liberty of contacting the beer review website Untappd to get the Frappicino beer listing removed.

Briton responded with a letter and a check for $6 – the profit he made from selling the beer to the three people who reviewed it on Untappd. If you haven’t read this letter yet, go do it. It’s hilarious.

My hat’s off to Briton for writing such a brilliant response and turning this situation into an awesome opportunity to promote Exit 6. Some people might say that Starbucks’ lawyers were being jerks for sending a cease and desist letter to the little guy who wasn’t their competition anyway. But it was what Starbucks had to do to protect its intellectual property.

When you have a copyright or a trademark and you know that someone is using your intellectual property without your permission and you do nothing, you send a message that you don’t care about protecting your intellectual property rights. If you let the little guys get away with things like Frappicino beer and then one of your big competitors does something similar and you try to lay the smack down on them, your competitor will have an argument that your track record shows that you let others use your property without permission or penalty. By not protecting your intellectual property, you put yourself at risk of losing your intellectual property rights.

It’s because of this risk that Starbucks has to send cease and desist letters to Exit 6 Pub. This is why I tell clients to keep an eye out for other people using their intellectual property. In trademark situations, a cease and desist letter is usually the proper response, even in situations like Frappicino beer.

This is also why I tell bloggers and photographers to be diligent about who is using their work. If they find that someone’s using their copyrights without permission, even if they’re ok with it, I often recommend they contact the alleged infringer and grant them a license after the fact and request an attribution if the infringer didn’t give them one. If they’re not ok with what the alleged infringer did, we discuss whether the artist wants to send a cease and desist, a DMCA takedown notice, a licensing agreement with a bill, or sue for infringement. There should always be a response.

If you have questions about your intellectual property rights or your strategy to protect them, please contact an intellectual property attorney in your community. If you have questions related to copyright or trademark and blogging, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

If you want to chat with me more about this topic, you can connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.