Be an Artist

Someone asked me recently why I don’t blog about every copyright case opinion that hits Pacer (Pacer is where all federal cases are listed, fyi). I’ll tell you why: because I need to know all the details about those cases, you don’t. My job is to know the law, yours is to make art. Let’s not confuse these things.

I try to write this blog for artists, especially those who are or may be my clients, but for all creatives generally. That doesn’t mean I’m talking down to my readers, but it does mean I don’t write on the same topics or in the same depth or in the same language as I would if I was writing for my colleagues. Like all professions or trades, lawyers have their own jargon and we have interest in weird (and often weirdly important) things that our clients really should just not bother to think about.

It’s one thing for an artist to stay informed generally on the law as regards her/his/their business, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to read law blogs and case opinions or to rely on non-lawyers for opinions on legal things. I encourage non-lawyers do the first but highly discourage the others. In fact, I’d go so far as to tell artists to let go of trying to understand business-related law (including copyright) at any level beyond the same way they understand traffic laws. I mean, an artist should know the law enough to know to do this, not that, and basically leave the rest to the lawyers (and to ask the lawyers, privately, for those answers).

Some of you may get your hackles up at that, but I’m not being demeaning here. Rather, just as I should not act as if I know as much as a professional artist about art, although I can do some creative things, artists shouldn’t try to be their own legal advisors (much less lawyers[1]). Humans simply do not know everything and we are (without great study) incapable of knowing multiple professions in equal, or even sufficient, depth.

The internet has done a great disservice to us in this. It’s turned us into believing we can and do know and understand much more than we really do. In reality, it’s shallow information overload. We get exposed to things we never would have before this beast[2]— but the knowledge we actually acquire is at best at a thin depth.

By “sharing” all sorts of data, much of which is highly suspect (but let’s not even go there now), average folk suddenly think they know as much as anyone about almost everything. This can seem to work for us in the short term or on occasion, but it is a dangerous seductress.

For example, my retired-graphic-designer brother recently fixed my father’s air conditioner, thanks to a tutorial on YouTube. Great, except my brother doesn’t really know anything in sufficient depth about how wiring and electricity, not to mention an air conditioner, actually work; so maybe his fix will work in the long run or maybe he’s created a fire hazard. The sad part is he (like all of us) can’t look for what he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know a lot since he is not a trained air conditioning repairman. But he has a very strong illusion of knowing, the illusion of full competence, at least insofar as this one repair[3].

When I had my last physical, I asked my doc about whether the internet is making his job harder. He said it definitely had. He gets more people coming in thinking they not only know what is wrong, but what the best cure would be, and basically get frustrated that he wants to examine them and instead ask him just to fill out the prescription. Or, they have ignored symptoms until something has become critical because they read online that if they just do a “cleanse” or something, it will pass.

I told him I felt his pain. I get potential clients who tell me what they think the law is, all the time. It sucks to have to say “no” or “you’re wrong” to these people, when what I want to do is help.

Worse yet, too often I read industry online publications that get the law completely wrong and it is clear that they have read something legal that they simply didn’t grok. Perfect example: a major professional photographer’s organization (or perhaps 2) published that photographers could register a copyright anytime, just as long as it was within one month of finding an infringement they’d be able to get statutory damages for that infringement. That is totally NOT the law–it is a mis-reading of the statute and has to do with an inapplicable “pre-registration” provision of the Copyright Act. Still, the bad information is out there and being promoted by what are supposed to be reputable sources.

Now, I get that one of the reasons that people look to the internet to get answers is because usually that information is free. In the case of the law, people think it’s going to cost them a bucket of greenbacks to get answers from an actual lawyer (and for BigLaw lawyers, that is usually the case). Usually, it won’t be that expensive and, more importantly you’ll get the right answer for your particular situation. Even if you spent, say, $350 for an hour of an attorney’s time and expertise, it is very likely you would, in the long run, save much more than that with the personalized and precise advice you would get.

So, here’s my general advice: if you’re an artist, be an artist and let go of trying to do everything. Honor your profession by honoring others, including not trying to get it all for free. Instead of taking a couple of hours to look something up on the internet, and vetting it on several sources, hire a pro and use your freed-up time to make better/more of your art. You’ll end up making more money and your over-stimulated brain will thank you.

As for me, I’ll keep writing about the law and your art and your business, but you’re not going to get in-depth legal analyses (usually) from me here. I don’t want you to get bogged down in the details, like specific code sections and treatises–I want you to know, rather and for example, that you should register your copyrights as soon as possible or not sign a Work For Hire unless you want to give away your copyright.

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[1]By the way, this applies to any profession that isn’t your primary one–you are not a doctor, or an accountant, or a farmer, or economist, etc.

[2]Just think about TV–trying to decide what to watch now is an exhausting process because of all the choices. There is just too much to choose from–how do we know what is best?

[3]He’s going to hate me for using this as an example, but it’s kind of a perfect example. My brother is brilliant in many ways; while it is entirely possible this fix is perfect, there is simply no way for any of us to know because we are not a/c pros.

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