Poor Man’s Copyright Doesn’t Work

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

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

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

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

Self-Addressed Unsealed Stamped Envelope Ready for the Mail

Self-Addressed Unsealed Stamped Envelope Ready for the Mail

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

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

If you want more information about how you can protect your rights in your work, please contact me or a copyright attorney in your community. You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
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Should Star Wars Fans Fear Disney Cease & Desist Letters?

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm - The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm – The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

May 4th is Star Wars Day. May the 4th be with you! In light of this geeky holiday and the fact that I will be speaking about the legalities of fan fiction and fan art at Phoenix Comicon this year, I’ve been thinking about what the impact of the Disney buying Lucasfilm in 2012 will have on Star Wars fans.

George Lucas was known for encouraging fans to create fan art and fan fiction. This is an expression of love for Star Wars and gives fans a chance to connect in new ways. In contrast, Disney is known for sending cease and desist letters when they find that a day care or school shows Disney films or if a child-centered business has a mural of Disney characters painted on the wall.

I tell my fellow geeks who want to create fan art or fan fiction to do their research on whose work they want to emulate to see if the copyright holder will be likely to come after them if they discover what they’ve created. I haven’t heard of any Star Wars fans receiving a cease and desist letter from Disney since they’ve acquired Lucasfilm. I’ve sent a message to Disney corporate office asking about their official policy regarding Star Wars fan art and fan fiction.

If you get a cease and desist letter from Disney for your Star Wars fan fiction or fan art, you could try to make an argument that you’re not committing copyright infringement because what you created is protected by the concept of fair use. This is part of the Copyright Act that permits people to add original and transformative content to existing works. This law protects things like parodies.

Never forget that fair use is a defense, not a permission slip. To make a valid fair use argument, the copyright holder will sue you for infringement and then you’ll have to demonstrate to the court that your work qualifies as fair use. The court will consider four main factors:

  1. Purpose and character of your use of another’s work (Are you transforming the original?)
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work you’re copying
  3. Amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used
  4. Effect on the market (Is your work a substitute for the original?)

This is somewhat a dangerous quest to take on. The general rule is “Disney never loses” when it comes to legal battles. I know of only person who fought Disney and won in a copyright situation.

If you create fan art or fan fiction or are considering creating original work based on an existing work and need to understand the legal risks that accompany your work, please contact a copyright attorney in your community. You can also check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed for my thoughts on fair use.

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Options When Someone Violates Your Creative Commons License

Portion of C.C. Chapman’s Twitter feed – September 10, 2012

I saw the following tweet the other day by author C.C. Chapman: “Since my photos are licensed under “non-commercial” is this a legal use of my Chevy Volt photo by Yahoo?” The question was followed by a link to an article on Yahoo Auto about GM’s report regarding whether Chevy Volts are being sold at a loss. The photo accompanying the article is C.C. Chapman’s photo of a Chevy Volt that he published on Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

This license requires anyone who uses the image to give C.C. Chapman the attribution, only use it for non-commercial use, and not alter the photo in any way. If the image appeared on Chevrolet’s blog, there would be a strong argument that Chevy uses its blog as a marketing tactic to get people to buy its vehicles; therefore every image on the blog is being used for a commercial use. In that case, the use of the image would have violated the license and C.C. Chapman’s copyright.

However, Yahoo published the article. Yahoo isn’t trying to sell cars. It makes money by selling ads and it may charge advertisers based on the number of hits a page gets. C.C. Chapman could make an argument that Yahoo’s use of his photo had a commercial goal; but Yahoo could fire back that it was reporting the news so its use of C.C. Chapman’s photo was protected by fair use. Yahoo could show that it has a history of news reporting and that its articles are accepted as news, not a marketing ploy.

But let’s say this photo appeared on a commercial website in violation of the Creative Commons license. That’s copyright infringement. What could C.C. Chapman do about it?

  1. Do nothing and be happy about the exposure.
  2. Get the photo removed by sending a DMCA takedown notice.
  3. Send the company a cease and desist letter.
  4. Send a bill with a licensing agreement and a letter that says the publisher has committed himself to paying a licensing fee since he already used the photo.
  5. Sue for copyright infringement.

A lot of people would be happy about the exposure and may opt to do nothing. The downside of doing this is someone else could use your work and make a valid argument that your inaction set a precedent that others could use their work for commercial purposes. You may want to send a letter that offers to license the photo in exchange for the exposure and states if the company doesn’t license it then they have to remove it. That way, you will still get your exposure but you still exert your copyright rights in your work.

If you have questions about how to protect your intellectual property rights, contact an intellectual property attorney (like me) in your community.

Feel free to connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Register Your Copyrights

Poor Frog & Macrograpy by Hamed Saber Ruth Carter

Poor Frog & Macrograpy by Hamed Saber

I frequently get questions from people claiming that someone copied a photograph that they own and republished it without their permission. They want to know what their options are for financial recourse. I start by asking them two questions.

  1. When did you take the photograph?
  2. Did you register your copyright?

Most of the time the photograph in question was taken years ago and the photographer didn’t register their copyright.  The majority of artists know that they get exclusive copyright rights the second they create their work in some tangible form, but most of them don’t know that they have to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office to maximize their protection and options for recourse when someone steals or illegally uses their work.

By creating an original literary, visual, or audiovisual work, you get the exclusive rights to copy, distribute, display, perform, and make derivative works of the original work. When and whether you register your copyright determines how much you might collect if someone violates your rights.

The Copyright Act says you must register your work within 3 months of publication or 1 month of learning of the infringement (whichever happens first!) to be eligible for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. Statutory damages is money the court can require the infringer to pay you regardless of how much money you lost because of the infringement. If the court decides that the infringer knowingly and willfully stole your work, they can order the infringer to pay you up to $150,000 per violation plus the cost of your attorney!

If you don’t register your copyright within 3 months of publication or 1 month of learning of the infringement, you can only collect your actual damages. This is the amount of money you lost because of the infringement and/or what the infringer earned by copying your work. There are times when your actual damages is $0 because you didn’t lose any money and the infringer didn’t make any money due to the infringement. If you had registered your work within the time frame stated in the Copyright Act, you would have been eligible for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees regardless of our actual damages.

It’s frustrating when I have to tell clients and friends that their options for financial compensation are few or non-existent, because it’s a preventable problem. You can register a copyright electronically online for as little as $35. You can register multiple photographs with one registration application and fee. If you are a professional photographer, you can register each photo shoot with one copyright. Whenever you finish the final product from a shoot, which I suspect is within 3 months of the shoot, take a few minutes to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can even pass the cost of registration onto your clients by raising your fees $35.

Registering a copyright is fast and easy, and you can do it yourself if you don’t want to a pay a lawyer to do it for you. If doing it by yourself the first time scares you, hire a lawyer to walk you through the process. It doesn’t take much time or money to maximize your protection , so do it.

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