Copyright FAQs

Large Copyright Graffiti Sign on Cream Colored Wall by Horia Varlan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Large Copyright Graffiti Sign on Cream Colored Wall by Horia Varlan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When I speak, I often refer to previous blog posts as potential resources for attendees. I frequently talk about copyright issues and I realized I haven’t written a post about copyright basics. So let me fix that.

What is Copyright?
The copyright law gives you rights to your original work. Your work may be comprised of text, drawings, photographs, video, sculpture, music, etc. When you create something, you have the right to control where your work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it.

What’s a Derivative Work?

When Do You Get Copyright Rights?
You get your copyright rights the moment your work is fixed in any tangible medium. It has to be a work you’ve created, not just an idea in your head. You do not have to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office or even put a copyright notice on your work (“©[YEAR] [YOUR NAME]”) to get your rights.

How Long Does Copyright Last?
For all works created on or after January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright is as followed:

  • For work created by an individual: Life of the author + 70 years
  • For work created by a company: 120 years from the date of creation

After this time period, the work become part of the public domain and anyone can use it for any purpose without needing the copyright owner’s permission. The owner of a copyright can give up their rights to their work at any time by releasing it into the public domain. If they release a work into the public domain, they can never reclaim their copyright rights.

What’s the Difference Between Copyright and Trademark?

What’s the Benefit of Registering a Copyright with the Copyright Office?
There are two main benefits for registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office:

  1. It is strong evidence that you actually own what you claim you own.
  2. You cannot sue for copyright infringement unless you register your work with the Copyright Office.

If you want to be in a position where you can sue for copyright infringement when someone steals your work, talk to a copyright attorney about your copyright strategy. There are many ways to protect your work. This is where the law can get really complicated and you want to make sure you’ve set yourself up for your desired outcome.

How Do You Register Your Work with the Copyright Office?
You can register your work on the Copyright Office’s website. You’ll need to fill out the form, upload a copy of your work, and pay a filing fee. The filing fee for a single work is $35-55. You can do this yourself, but the Copyright Office’s website is not very user-friendly.  I recommend at least hiring an attorney to walk you through the process the first time.

Legal Side of Blogging Book CoverIf you want to do it all yourself, allot at least 2-3 hour to get through it the first time. And you might want to have an adult beverage on ice as a reward at the end of the process.

To put it in context, it took me an hour the first time I registered my own work and I knew what I was doing. (I have a certificate in intellectual property in addition to my law degree.) Now, I can submit an application to register a copyright in under 30 minutes most of the time.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have questions about how copyright works in terms of the internet, social media, and /or blogging, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. Approximately half the book addresses copyright issues.

If you want to talk more about copyright, 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.

Register Your Copyright Before You Self-Publish

Eero facepalmaa by Tuomas Puikkonen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Eero facepalmaa by Tuomas Puikkonen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A few days ago, a friend and fellow author posted on Facebook that someone put his book online as a free download without his permission. Some authors make their work available for free as part of their marketing campaign and that’s their prerogative, and they control where and when they do this.

My friend and I started chatting about what he wanted to do to remedy this situation. A person who owns a copyright has the right to control where their work is copied, displayed, and distributed and has recourse if someone else steals or uses their work. If someone blatantly copies your work and is giving away copies of it, it’s likely copyright infringement.

I thought my friend could qualify to sue for copyright infringement and sue for statutory damages. The copyright laws say that if someone willfully steals your work, you can ask the court to award you up to $150,000 plus attorneys’ fees. Alternatively, you could ask for actual damages, which is how much money you actually lost due to the infringement.  My friend is self-published in this case, so I suspected the potential statutory damages would be higher than the actual ones.

Then my friend dropped a bomb – he hadn’t registered his copyright yet.

I cringed with defeat.

My friend is a smart guy, so he knew that he couldn’t sue for copyright infringement until he registered his copyright.  What he didn’t know what that you have to 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.  He can still register his work and sue for the actual damages (which is likely low) and he’d be responsible for paying for his attorneys’ fees. If he doesn’t want to put in the time, energy, or money to sue for infringement, he can still get is legal eagle friend (that’s me) to send a cease and desist letter or a DMCA takedown notice to try to make the infringement stop.

So here’s the take-away lesson from my friend’s experience: If you are a self-published author, register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office before you offer it for sale or download. That way, if someone steals your work, all your options for recourse will still be available to you. You can register your work online and the application fee is only $ 35 or $55, depending on your situation. And if you don’t want to register your work yourself, it’s not that expensive to hire a lawyer to do it for you.

If you want to talk more self-publishing and copyright, you can connected 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

To Watermark or Not To Watermark

How to Create a Watermark in Photoshop by Michele M. F. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

How to Create a Watermark in Photoshop by Michele M. F. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I was recently asked to talk about whether there are benefits to putting a watermark on your photos before posting them on the Internet. Is it worth the extra effort? Do they really prevent people from stealing your work?

Like all legal questions, the answer is, “It depends.” But let’s look at it.

When you take a photograph, you have copyright rights in your work the second the image is put on film or saved in your camera. You have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, and make derivative works from your picture, even if you don’t register it with the U.S. Copyright Office  or put the © [Your Name] [Year] on it. If you want to sue for copyright infringement if someone steals your work, you have to register your work and if that’s the case you should consult a lawyer to determine the best copyright protection strategy for your work.

I look at watermarks similarly to home security. Your home doesn’t have to be fortress; it just has to be less appealing than the other houses on the block. A watermark makes your photo less appealing to potential infringers who can probably find (and possibly steal) a similar image elsewhere that doesn’t come with a watermark.

For people who understand copyright, a watermark is a visual reminder that they don’t own the image and they should contact you if there’s an image they really want to use. The problem with watermarks is they can obscure the image itself and interfere with people’s ability to enjoy the image which was the purpose of posting it online in the first place.

You could try to avoid this problem by putting the watermark in the corner so it doesn’t obstruct the image, but then you open yourself up to the possibility that someone will steal you work and crop off the watermark before using it. If an infringer does this, it is a separate additional penalty to copyright infringement. If you sued the infringer you could ask for damages for the infringement which can be up to $150K if you qualify for statutory damages and up to an additional $25K for removing or altering the “copyright management information.

So, should you take the time to put watermarks on your photos? It’s your call. You can deter potential infringers with watermarks and/or using software that prevents them from downloading your images from your website. But if someone is dead set on stealing your work, there’s probably nothing you can do to completely stop them. The questions then become how much energy are you willing to put into prevention and how do you want to respond if someone steals your work. How you want the situation to be resolved usually tells you what you have to do on the front end to set yourself up for the desired outcome.

If you want to chat with me more about this topic, you can connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. I’m also available to speak at events on Copyright for Creatives.
You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

New Stance on Blog Copyright Registration

Hey you! by QuinnDombrowski from Flickr

Hey you! by QuinnDombrowski from Flickr

Grrr . . . It seems like every time I call the Copyright Office with a question about blog copyrights, I have to change my stance on how and whether anyone should register their blog’s content. Mind you, when I wrote the Legal Side of Blogging last year, my research and ideas were approved by my cyberspace law professor and another internet/copyright attorney. We all got it wrong.

I used to think that bloggers should register their new content every three months because the Copyright Act says you’re eligible for statutory damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit if you register your work within three months of publication or one month of learning of the infringement – whichever is first. In a previous call to the Copyright Office, the representative said it was permissible to register all your content as one work and that subsequent registrations would be derivative works of the prior ones.

A few months ago I was informed that content that is only available online (including blog posts) doesn’t count as “publications,” so that rule about registering within three months of publication doesn’t apply. For unpublished content, you have to register you work prior to the infringement occurring to be eligible for statutory damages. If you wait until after your work has been stolen to register you work you can only collect actual damages, which will be low unless you or the person who stole your work has a financially successful site.

I called the Copyright Office yesterday and was told that you can’t register posts that are released on different days as one work (though my experience is proof that you can) and you can’t register the same post as an individual work and as part of a larger work, (though I think there’s some wiggle room here).

So here’s my new stance – registering your blog content is not worth it for most people. The exception to this rule is you might want to register your work if you think it will be stolen by someone who can afford to pay potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and attorneys’ fees. If you’re in this boat, or think you might be, you should submit your application to the Copyright Office before you release the post on your site to ensure that your application will be in before any infringement can occur.

This is more proof of how behind the times the law is and that you can’t apply logic to copyright on the internet. I think it’s moronic that online content isn’t “published” when it’s released on the internet. I think this definition will change in the near future with so many publications switching from paper to being online only. As the law is written and applied the law seems unfair because it makes it harder for online writers to protect themselves.

There is a special copyright registration for “serial works” but so far the Copyright Office says blogs, including those that are released on a strict schedule like other serial publications, do not qualify. I think this is wrong and needs to be challenged.

For now, I’ve added a disclaimer to my ebook on Amazon that states that the copyright registration chapter is inaccurate and will be updated this summer. I hope to add the revised chapter to the book in the next month once it gets through legal review and editing.

Update on Registering the Copyright in your Blog

Library of Congress by ctj71081 from Flickr - Where your work goes when you register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Library of Congress by ctj71081 from Flickr – Where your work goes when you register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

I’ve been a proponent of registering your copyright in your blog every three months. The federal Copyright Act states you must register the copyright in your blog within three months of publication or one month of learning of the infringement, whichever happens first.

So every three months (March 31st, June 30th, September 30th, and December 31st) I have a note on my calendar to register my blogs. I take all the content I’ve added to my blog since my last registration, create a PDF, and register it.

I made a mistake on my last copyright application.

I let logic dictate my action and I claimed that my publication date was December 31, 2013 on my last application. I should have said that my word was “unpublished.” If I declare that my work is published, I have to register each post individually. If the work is “unpublished,” the dated posts can be registered as a group.

You would think that putting something on the internet counts as publishing a work, but it doesn’t. In the Copyright Office’s words, “For copyright purposes, ‘publication’ means the distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display is also ‘publication.’ The following do not constitute “publication:” the printing or other reproduction of copies, a public performance or display of the work, or sending copies of the work to the Copyright Office.”

If the only place you put your content is on your blog, it’s likely not published. If you repurpose your content in multiple locations, it might be. (Talk to a copyright attorney to see if you’ve “published” your work.)

The downside of blog content not counting as published is you have to register you work prior to it being stolen to be eligible for statutory damages under the copyright laws. So the idea a lot of my copyright attorney friends and I believed about registering every three months is not a good strategy. Also, the Copyright Office doesn’t like it when you register posts that were released on different days as a single work. Experience tells me that they’ll let you do it, but if they know that’s what you’re doing, they’ll tell you that you have to register each post individually.

Because of this, the best strategy for people who want to be able to sue for copyright infringement if their blog content is stolen is to register your work before you put a post on your site. Yes, this will be more expensive because each post will need its own registration, so you might want to only register the posts you think will be stolen, and even then you may want to only register the posts that you think will be stolen by someone who can afford to pay the damages assessed by the court and your attorneys’s fees. Otherwise you might be better off not suing for copyright infringement and sending a cease and desist or a DMCA takedown notice.

If someone steals your work, you should talk with a copyright lawyer ASAP. Even if you didn’t register you work before the infringement occurred, you may be in a situation where it is worthwhile to pursue actual damages which is how much money you lost and the alleged infringer made because of the infringement. They can also discuss other ways to address infringement that don’t involve the court system.

For more information about copyright and blogs, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.
You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Choose Your Strategy to Protect Your Work Before Posting it on the Internet

My artwork for Dans office by Romers from Flickr

My artwork for Dans office by Romers from Flickr

A friend recently asked me about a common situation her clients face. They are artists who, before the internet, could only show their work to a large audience at art festivals. She said these artists hesitate to market their work online because they’re afraid that it could be stolen.

Could their work be illegally copied if they show it on the internet? Yes. I worked with an artist last year who had their entire catalog illegally copied.

Should they us the internet to market their work despite this risk? Probably. If you’re an artist you have to weigh the risk of having your work illegally copied against the benefit of reaching a larger audience.

My unsolicited advice to artists is to decide how you want to respond if your work is stolen before you put your work out there and plan accordingly.

  • If you want to sue the people who illegally copy your work, you have to register your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • If you want to license your work, meaning people can pay you for the right to reproduce your work on their sites, you need to have licensing terms and fees. This way people can legally purchase the rights to use your work and you can send a bill to the people who illegally copy your work. This recently happened to a friend of mine.
  •  If all you want to do is force them to remove the image when you detect someone’s stolen your work, you need to understand the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or know an attorney who does who can send the proper takedown notice on your behalf.

When you put your work out there, you should be diligent about watching the internet for potential infringement. Often times people think they can use your work if they provide an attribution and a link to the original. What they’ve really done is made it easy for you to determine who is using your work without your permission.

My two cents on this issue is you shouldn’t let your fears about copyright infringement prevent you from using the internet to market your work if you’re an artist, but you should have a strategy in place in advance for dealing with it when it occurs.

For more information on this and related topics, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed, available on Amazon.

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

DMCA Takedown FTW: The Follow-up

Don't Steal by Uncleweed, Ruth Carter, Carter Law Firm

Don’t Steal by Uncleweed

Last week I posted a blog about my experience sending a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice to Google. A few questions have come up since I put up the post, and I wanted to address them.

When I first noticed that another blogger had taken a photo from my blog and posted it on her site, one of my friends asked me why I sent a DMCA takedown notice instead of just sending her an email. That’s a valid question, and an option I considered.  I chose to send a DMCA takedown notice because I’d never sent one before I wanted to experience the process. I had no malicious intent. The blog where the copyright infringement was occurring was taken down in about 24 hours, and the blogger who stole my work changed the image and had the post back up in less than a day after that.

It seems like a lot of people use images they find online without thinking about the potential legal implications. This situation could have been a lot worse. My blog is not currently registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, but that’s on my to-do list. If I registered my blog and sued for infringement in this situation, I would only be eligible for my actual damages, which is probably nothing.

If you steal an image from a blog that was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office within 3 months of publication or 1 month of learning of the infringement (whichever happens first), you could be sued for copyright infringement and ordered to pay the copyright owner’s statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. In the worst case scenario, you could be ordered to pay up to $150,000 in damages plus attorneys’ fees.

So what’s the take home lesson? Be thoughtful about the images you use on your blog. Only use images that are available under Creative Commons. If there’s an image that you want to use that doesn’t come with a Creative Commons license, get permission from the copyright owner to use the image.

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

Phoenix Comicon Badge Art Being Ripped Off

Phoenix Comicon 2012 Badge Ruth Carter

Picture from my 2012 Phoenix Comicon Badge

I recently wrote a post about copyright, fair use, and fan fiction and I did an analysis of Marty Freetage’s artwork that was on the badges for Phoenix Comicon this year. It was an awesome parody of Angry Birds and The Avengers. Parodies are generally permissible under the fair use doctrine and I thought Marty’s work was original enough that the copyright holders for Angry Birds and The Avengers probably wouldn’t come after him or Phoenix Comicon for copyright infringement.

Shirt on Gabilife.com

This week I was surprised to see a t-shirt for sale on Gabilife that looks exactly like Marty’s picture. A lot of people on Facebook posted that Gabilife used Marty’s work, changed the background, and stuck it on a shirt. Whoever owns the copyright in the badge art has good reason for believing that their Gabilife is infringing on their work.

This story gets more complicated by Gabilife claims to be a company in India. It raises the question of what are the possible recourse options to make them stop selling the shirt. If they have a presence in the United States, whoever owns the copyright could go after Gabilife for infringement as if they were a US-based company.

Gabilife’s terms state “Pursuant to Title 17, United States Code, Section 512(c)(2), notifications of claimed copyright infringement under United States copyright law should be sent to Service Provider’s Designated Agent.” I searched the agent list on the US Copyright website and I didn’t see a listing for Gabilife or Gabi. That makes me wonder if they just copied someone else’s terms and conditions without registering an agent.

If owned the copyright for the original badge art, I’d register the copyright in the artwork immediately. A copyright holder maximizes their options for recourse if they register their copyright within 3 months of publication or 1 month of learning of the infringement, whichever happens first. If this art hasn’t been registered, that window could still be open.

If the work was registered in time, I’d sue them for copyright infringement if it was a US company. If the company doesn’t do business in the US, there’s probably no point to suing them. If suing them would be pointless, I’d either send a DMCA takedown notice to the email address listed on their site and to their snail mail address. If I wanted to be really bold, I would send them a licensing agreement and a bill that states that they agreed to the licensing agreement by using the artwork without permission.

I wouldn’t expect them to pay me, but it would be validating.

So what is the take away message?

  1. Register your copyrights shortly after creating an original work, especially when you’re as awesome as Marty.
  2. If you suspect someone is ripping off your work, contact a copyright attorney in your community (like me!) to help you strategize and execute your response.

Feel free to connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn.
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.

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