It’s not new if it’s the same

Here is yet another sad story of the timing ofregistrationbiting creatives in the butt. The short answer is that tattoo artists didn’t register the design in tats made on NBA players (including LeBron James) when theymade them, but instead after the first infringement of the tattoosby a video game company. That is, when the players were reproduced in video games, the tats were also reproduced, and since they weren’t licensed by the tattoo artists, the copyrights in the tats wereinfringed. In 2015, after the 2013 infringements (in NBA 2K14), the artists registered the work and when the same video game used the players (with tats) again but in the NBA 2K16game, theybrought suit seeking attorneys’ fees and statutory damages of up to $1.2 million.

The court said the “new”infringements weren’t actually new but rather the game was an iterationof the original one, with the original infringements. Sincethose started before the registrations, boom, statutory damages and attorneys’ fees were barred.


The artists are claiming the actual damages (still available under the law) are still significant, but they’regoing to have to prove up those damages; that is going to be a bear.

Lift & Separate

(updated 12/2020)

Long before I became a lawyer, I advocated for two things when it came to photographers fees: raise them (particularly the license fee) and separate the creative fee from the license fee. The big push-back was often that buyers don’t like it. Well, the buyer has its self-interests but you must respect your own.

I bring this up because I’ve seen it repeatedly in my practice: a photographer comes to me with a possible infringement and, not having timely registered the copyright in the work (grrr!), leaves me no option but to see if there are sufficient actual damages in the form of lost licensing fees to make the case worth my efforts. When asked what her/his usual and customary license rate is for a similar use, the photographer will respond with something like, “Well, I would have asked $2000.”

My next question is, “Do you have invoices to back up this rate?” And the responses are either “No, but that is what I would have charged,” (ugh) or I am presented with an invoice for the creation of the work with a combined creative/license fee of $2000 (ick), or, worst of all, I get the invoice for the creation and licensing of the work where the photographer only charged $500 on some sort of mega-discount but it only shows as a $500 total fee (hurl!).

Obviously, none of these are good answers to a lawyer’s ears.

In the first case, no history of licenses, it could be worse. I can at least argue for the fair market value of a license and then, using common metrics like Fotoquote and online calculators for stock license rates, get a number. Sadly, as we all know, those numbers are likely to be low, particularly since there are more and more cheap stock sites out there. But still, at least I’ve got nothing the other side can use against my client.

In the last case, you’ve just set you price, forever. You are never going to get anyone to believe that a license similar to the original one is worth anything more than a few dollars because you have told the word that you’ll make and license it for so little! Now, if you are going to offer a super-mega-discount (and that’s totally cool, sometimes), make sure that you spell it out on the invoice like:

Creative fee: $2500
One-time Discount: -$2300
License Fee: $4500
One-time Discount: -$4200
Total Fees: $500

That way you are saying “my usual price for this license is $4500” and that can be used as evidence later of your actual fees. That’s great! But, if you just list the discounted price, you’ve only got your word that you normally would have charged more. That won’t hold up.

In case #2 above, all bets are off. The other side can argue that $500 was the license fee and $1500 was the creative fee, or worse. It is almost impossible to argue successfully that the majority of a combined fee is for the license and not the creation of the work, unless it is spelled out in the paperwork. I’m good, but I can’t make butter with a toothpick and there are plenty of good attorneys on the other side who can present evidence that the fair market value of the license is only $200. If you’ve got nothing in your records to show otherwise, then it’s quite possible that all you can get for actual damages will be that $200. At the very least, in court, it would cost a hell of a lot more in expert testimony to try and prove up your damages, and the other side knows it, so they can stonewall in pre-suit negotiations. You got no bat, as they say. Go home.

The best business practice, both for now and to protect your values in the future, is to separate out your fees on your paperwork and, very importantly, to make your license fee the higher portion of those fees. Later on, you can use those higher numbers to support getting higher actual damages. Also, if you do timely register your work, the courts will often look to the actual damages in setting statutory ones (like maybe doing a multiple of actual damages). If you can prove up substantial actual damages (a high license fee), you are more likely to get higher statutory ones. Proof of higher fees will make it easier for your attorney to argue for higher pre-suit settlements as well.

As for the argument that your clients want combined fees, well duh–and you’d like a million bucks for the shoot. They don’t get to tell you how to run your business–they are not doing you a favor by hiring you. They’re hiring you because you are good at your job; moreover, you have to run your business your way, not how they want it. Besides, they can’t complain if you do as in the example above: that is, you can give a final number that is combined, just make sure that the line items are separate. If they argue for a higher creative fee and lower licensing one, you know they are thinking of the future when they want to re-license; so should you and a higher license fee now means higher re-license fee later.

Run your business like a business. That includes thinking about future value and long term effects.

It’s not hard, it just takes some guts. You can do this.