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.


[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.

Do You Suffer with CRAP?

(This is a slightly altered repost from many, many years ago. Sometimes, y’all need reminding, though…)

Do you believe you are a creative professional? An artist of some form? That is, a person with a gift, a talent, a set of abilities like no other person? Believing that is an act of faith and, rather surprisingly, it’s damn hard for some creatives to do. Are you one of those creatives who honors that gift, or one of those who acts almost embarrassed or ashamed of it? Do you put down your abilities, malign your gift? Ever catch yourself saying things like “Oh, it wasn’t anything special” or “I just kinda shot it–got lucky with the light?” Do you refer to yourself and your path as “the guy who liked to draw as a kid and ended up in art school” or “the adult version of the kid who liked taking pictures for the yearbook but couldn’t do anything else?” Do you feel, on some level, like apologizing every time you get paid for your creative work? Are you waiting for the day when someone finally tells you you’re a no-talent hack who has only managed to fake it this far?

If you answered “yes” to any of those statements, you’ve got Cognitive Reduction of Artistry Pathology…or CRAP*.

One of the main signs that you’re afflicted with CRAP is that you refuse to use the term “artist” for who and what you are. You may call yourself at best a creative professional, but the word “artist” is never used except, maybe, in the  popular variation “commercial artist.”  That may be used as a work-around because somehow that makes you less of an artist. If it’s commercial, it’s not real art–-that’s what you tell yourself.

If you have CRAP, your art’s value is downgraded in your own head. And yet, you admire people like Annie Leibovitz, Frank Gehry, and Chip Kidd; people who are (commercial) artists. Famous artists in any field, no matter how commercial, are somehow different from you and are (real) artists. But you? No siree! Not in your CRAP-filled head.

CRAP Facts
CRAP afflicts many people in all the creative industries: designers, photographers, writers, architects, illustrators, musicians, actors, etc.
CRAP can bog you down just as sure as walking in a muddy, well-used cow pasture in a pair of high heels. Depression can follow CRAP.
CRAP-sufferers often struggle with business–how can you demand more money or better rights if you’re not really an artist?
CRAP is a self-fulfilling disorder: after all, if you’re not a “real” artist you don’t have to push yourself creatively, right?
CRAP can be insidious; it’s one thing to be modest (a good thing) but one step too far and you CRAP all over yourself.

But you can rid yourself of CRAP. Here are some simple steps you can start today:

  • Call yourself an artist and call what you make art. Do it out loud, every single day.
  • Remind yourself that your work has value– if an ad costs $300K just for its space (placement), the art for that ad is worth a hell of a lot more than $2K.
  • Most people will not like your art, and that’s a good thing, after all, most people like Wal*Mart and lawn ornaments; but the ones that will like it are the only ones that count and they’re the ones to market to.
  • You have every right to get paid and paid well for your abilities, just like a doctor or a plumber or any other pro; your skills are just as rare and valuable.
  • And, most importantly, you deserve to be happy–you are doing what you love, what you should be doing in this life–don’t crap on it.

[* CRAP was, of course, entirely invented by me. That makes it no less real in many ways.]

New Tool! (For infringement searching)

I’ve been hearing from clients how they are frustrated that they can’t find a decent service that actively monitors multiple images for possible infringements. That is, one that doesn’t then require them to use the monitoring company’s services to pursue claims, like ImageRights or Pixsy (etc.) do.

Lots of photographers don’t want to have to pay 50% or more of their settlements, often on top of subscription fees, and I don’t think they (or you) should. It’s your money and fees like that, in my opinion, are outrageous. It’s like when stock agencies went from the photographer getting most of the licensing fees to the photographer getting practically nothing–it’s your work and you deserve to keep most of the money collected!

Anyway, like I said, clients were asking for options and I didn’t have a good one to present. So, I started digging.

The usual suspects of Google Image or Bing Image are strong tools but aren’t for monitoring. You can’t upload a bunch of images then get a report about them–you can only do one-off searches. There is a Russian site called Yandex that a client recommended, but I honestly do not trust any Russian site not to then take your images and re-sell them behind your back[1].TinEye has been around for some time, but they’re way pricey, especially for a solo artist.

Finally, after some Reddit hunting, I think I have found the answer: a UK company called’s service is a subscription, web-based tool at a ridiculously fair price point. Seriously. How does $25 a month grab you? That level will cover many of you but even if you are the busiest and want to track a ton of images, the most expensive monitoring plan is $150 a month.

They have no contracts, no limitations on who you can work with, and they specifically do not pursue claims. In their own words, “We don’t pursue infringements, leaving you free to choose your own lawyers and keep 100% of settlements.”


And, most importantly, it works[2]. I did a small test (you can test drive for free with up to 3 images) and was stunned at the results. One of the images I tested is a client-friend’s that I knew had been ripped off before. In an hour it found at least 19 uses of that photo, most of which were unauthorized.

You can get reports emailed to you. You can download the data as a .csv file to put in Excel or your own database. It’s got an API (maybe you have software it can talk to directly?). The results are dead easy to read and understand. And you don’t have to be a geek to figure out how to use the tool. Payment is made via PayPal and the terms of service are not sneaky.

Honestly, I keep looking for a big negative but, so far, I can’t find one.

So go forth and monitor your work[3]. When you find infringements, hire your own, personal copyright attorney (like me) with whom you can build a relationship. And keep most of your own money.


[1]Go ahead and call me “racist” if you want–I know what I’ve seen in my practice and Russian sites are some of the worst infringers.

[2]Okay, I have to admit (1) there was a little bug that gave me a warning about having uploaded too many images for the free trial, when I hadn’t, but it worked anyway; and, (2) I having been testing it long, yet.

[3]Register the copyrights first, m’kay?

What to Do (Collecting Evidence)

When one finds one’s work being used by someone without permission, much less payment, there are some things to be done besides just swearing about it. Before doing anything regarding the infringer, especially before contacting it, do the most important thing: collect all the evidence.

If your work is appearing in print someplace, or in 3 dimensions (depending on your art), take copious photographs of it. Try to get close-ups and photos of the context (in a bank, on a billboard, etc.).

If, say, the work appears on a product, note the store where it is being sold and ask the manager for the name and contact information of the supplier, if it’s not a company you recognize. You can also buy example products (or publications) bearing your work, if that is an option.

Online? Make screenshots. Get the whole page if possible (try an app like Paparazzi) and also try to get a screenshot showing as much of the URL as possible while also capturing the infringing use. When you do that, however, make sure to hide your favorites and close all other tabs–you want a clean example of the infringement[1].

Got the shots of the work on the public-facing pages of the site? Great, now find it on their servers. In Safari, go under Develop>Show Web Inspector and you’ll see a folder called Images. Here, I have a screenshot looking at this site that way where I’ve ID’ed a photo of the La Jolla post office I made (selected in the screenshot below):

Double-click that highlighted icon and it will open the link to the work as it appears on the infringer’s server (here, on my server). Get screenshots of that as well and note the URL(s).

Okay, now do you use metadata in your images? Please say you do. If so, then check the metadata on the infringing photograph–see what has/has not been deleted or altered. Preserve that evidence as well (make pdfs of the results, for example).

Finally, for web-related infringements, preserve the infringement on the Wayback Machine at You do that by checking to see if the page is there already (and do this for the front-facing pages and the server pages); if it’s not, then you’ll see that you can add it. Here is what I got when I put in the URL for the server page holding my post office photo, for example:

Once you’ve done all that you need to find, in your own records, your copyright registration for the work and copies of your deposit copies. If it’s not registered and it is still within three calendar months of your first publication of the work[2], register it immediately[3]! Also note where you have licensed the work to be used and where you have published the work yourself (exact URLs for everything–not just “on my site”). Basically, think of every place that your opposition may have found the work and note the URLs.

Put all of the above into a folder for that infringement, before you do anything like contacting the infringer.

Yes, this all is some work, but evidence is so important that it is totally worth it. I can’t begin to tell you how many times someone has contacted me with what sounds like a great case but, because s/he hasn’t preserved evidence of the infringement, there is noting that I can do for her/him. I may know it is an infringement, but if I can’t prove it, there is nothing I can do for you.

So, once you have all the evidence, then you can decide what to do about the infringement itself. In my next post, I’ll talk about your choices.


[1] No reason to give anyone any personal data accidentally, like that you also were looking at porn or something (yes, this happens).

[2] Remember that “publication” has a different meaning under copyright law here so if you offered it to a client for its use, even if it wasn’t used, then it is published. Also, posting the work on a site where you say, basically, “you can license this work” is publishing. However, just because you posted it on your portfolio site (no offer to license) does not make it published. If you aren’t sure, ask a copyright lawyer, not your creative buddies, for advice.

[3] If it is too late, then your options are limited for how you approach the infringement, since your remedies are limited, but it still may be worth pursuing.

Are You Getting Played?

Last night, I had the joy of going to a lecture by Dan Winters (thanks APA-SD). Even before I heard his impassioned words about his own work and about others’ art and the importance of what artists (particularly photographers) do, I had been thinking about writing a blog post like this one. It’s not going to be easy to say some of what I have to say and some feelings are going to get hurt but, honestly, everything I’m going to say is said out of love and respect.

Yes, I love creative professionals–it’s why I do what I do. Y’all amaze me with your visions and abilities and you contribute so much to our culture, but y’all need to stop. Just stop. No, not stop making great creative work, but rather y’all have got to stop not running your businesses like real damn businesses, stop looking for “easy” when it comes to doing the non-creative parts of your businesses, and generally you must stop selling yourselves short and stop getting played for it.

Artists[1] are notorious for throwing themselves into their creative work–the stereotype of the compulsive artist working without a break to make her/his art doesn’t exist without reason. Y’all have the drive to perfectionism in your art that makes your work ethic arguably greater than the average person’s; that is, for creating your art. But, when it comes to the non-creative part of your work, far too often it’s like the artist suddenly becomes dumb and lazy. You look for shortcuts and cheap/easy solutions, rather than doing the (hard, shitty, no-fun) work of being a business. It makes me more than a little crazy to witness–mostly because it is simply artists giving into fear and insecurity[2].

The reality is that what you do is amazing and valuable and you must recognize this to move forward. I mean your art is economically valuable (on top of culturally)–very valuable in fact: to the tune of $4.2% of the US economy. That is over $760B![3] Photography alone, added over $10B to the US economy and design, $19.5B[4]. Those are huge numbers and deserving of respect, including working the shitty work.

You contribute to those huge numbers.
Your contribution is worthy of respect.
Your business is worthy of (self-)respect, including the money.

So why then do we have this illusion that to be an artist means you have to hate business and be ashamed of making money? Because it is in other businesses’ best interests to hold you down. It is better for internet companies (and other clients) to call your work “content” like it is some unimportant filler for their products and tell you how they can’t pay you (much, if at all) for it but that your exposure will be worth more than money (which is, of course, bullshit)–because it increases their margins.

Okay, we all know this about clients. I’m not saying anything new–we all know that it’s in clients’ best interests to get your work for as little money as possible. But, and here is the tough stuff to hear, some of your vendors are also screwing you and, importantly, doing so with your blessing.

Maybe it’s easier for me to see this because I’m a woman and have lived my life getting mansplained and underpaid and told that I should be happy with it or happy that some guy deigned to take me out at all or lucky that someone offered me a job or that it was my fault that someone did whatever nasty shit was done. Women are used to it (I’m guessing people of color get this idea, too) and used to fighting against it. But most pro photographers (if not all kinds of pro artists) are men (mostly white, too, I’d bet) and I suspect y’all don’t like thinking that you may be being played, so you ignore even the possibility. Vendors are relying on you behaving like this because it is in their best interests.

So, out of love and a respect for each of you and what you do, I’m telling you a hard truth: some of you are choosing to work with vendors who are selling you the idea that they are offing you a great service and, because you hate doing the non-creative part of your business, you don’t look at whether it is really in your best interest. You assume that because, for example, the guy who started up company X was a photographer himself, he must have your best interests at heart and you willingly give up far too much of your money for the privilege of letting that company (ahem) “help” you.
Honey, you are being played.

You have got to take control of your own businesses and that includes doing the hard, no-fun, non-creative work. Don’t assume that some company is out to help you or that their “solution” that seems to make your business life easier is actually to your benefit in the long run. Often, they are not.

In my opinion, the worst offenders lately are the companies that offer copyright registration and protection services. These companies are ripping you off and you are thanking them for it, like Kevin Bacon in Animal House.

These companies usually charge a subscription fee for which you may get a certain number of copyright registrations and the company will then find infringements of the images you submit. However, the companies then generally require you to use their settlement services[5] for any of the infringements found and then usually take more than 50% of each of your settlements received (more, if the cases get filed)[6] [7].

Adding insult to injury, much like the stock agencies did in the late 1990s when they figured out they could get away with it, these companies often accept very low amounts in settlements–far less than each infringement is really worth, even in settlement–since the companies make it up in volume (something any individual artist cannot do). As an example, say, you get 45% of the $1000 they get in settlement for each your 10 infringements[8] (total, $4500 to you), and they get 55% of those 10 ($5500). However, they also have 999 other customers and get 55% of $1000 for each of the 10 infringements they settle for each of their other customers… and end up making $5,500,000!

Plus, don’t forget, you don’t clear that $4500–you have to pay your subscription fees, too, plus the registration fees to the USCO and, in the end, you might make $3000. Maybe. The company, meanwhile, gets at least another $300 x 1000 in subscription fees ($300,000) plus likely more fees for more registrations than the subscription includes and, well, you can see who is making the real money here.
Hint: it ain’t you.

Finally, you are relying on non-lawyers (usually) to register your copyrights with the USCO and, if they get something wrong, you are screwed by the faulty registration. A faulty registration, if relied on in court, could result in your case being dismissed and you having to pay the other side’s attorneys’ fees and costs, under 17 USC §505.

Oh, and by the way, these companies are not legally required to have your best interests first and foremost like a lawyer must (by law!)–in fact, the companies have a legal requirement to make money[9].

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, now you have these companies claiming that blockchain will make it all easier and better. It’s bullshit, as I have explained before.

The reality is that the non-creative part of your business is a large part in creating and keeping your money–your wealth. The non-creative part of your business includes registering your copyrights, looking for infringements, and pursing infringers. It is also keeping your books, paying your employees and other crew correctly and on time (including proper withholding and workers comp), and having good insurance. It is also using good paperwork for everything, having written and well-drafted licenses, and having contracts offered to you reviewed when you don’t understand them, not to mention stuff like keeping records and files. It’s not the fun stuff, and it is not easy, but it is as important as the actual art you make. Stop looking for shortcuts.

Look at the successful artists you know and you will find that not only are they often highly creative[10], they are also equally devoted to the business side of their business. They learn about and run their business like a business and they hire people to help them, like (in-house) a studio manager and out-of-house a CPA and an attorney. They respect their creative work enough to treat the non-creative part of their businesses as equally important. They hire licensed professionals who have their best interests as first priority to do the things those pros do best. They work their asses off to make sure they are taking care of the non-creative part of their businesses and act like professional business people, without apology. No excuses, no whining; they get it done.
What is your excuse?

I was talking about all this to my boyfriend, a former CFO and financial analyst, last night. He said (paraphrasing), “The artists are totally getting screwed–they’re not recognizing that they are over-paying for a service they don’t actually need! Why don’t individual artists hire people to help find infringements or do their paperwork?”
“Money,” I said, “they don’t feel like they can afford to hire help.”
He thought for a second and said, “Why don’t they get together with others and jointly hire someone in-house to find the infringements (to hand off to their attorney) and to take care of running the other business stuff (like bookkeeping to hand off to a CPA)? Get a couple of artists together and they could totally afford to hire someone who could do this for them and it would be much more cost-effective.”
I looked at him and said, “That’s brilliant!”

Whatever you choose to do, you simply cannot keep letting others sucker you out of your money, be they clients or vendors. Stop pretending you don’t want to make and keep as much money as you can, making the work you love. Your work is too important. Your skills are too great. You owe it to yourself, to your art, and to your industry to do better. I know you can.


[1] I’m going to call you all collectively “artists” but this all holds true for photographers, illustrators, writers, designers, etc.

[2] “Imposter syndrome” is a real thing ( and very prevalent among creative professionals. Actually, many pros in many fields (including the law) have that fear that they are not worthy or will be found out as being a big faker.



[5] By the way, the “agents” for these settlement services are usually not lawyers and may in fact be practicing law without a license and/or illegally sharing fees between lawyers/non-lawyers. I also have questions about whether the companies offering advice about registering copyrights are also practicing without a license. I expect that many of these companies will face Unlicensed Practice of Law suits in the near future.

[6] Most attorneys I know, including myself, have much lower contingency fees–more like 33-40% to the attorney (before filing suit); and we’re required by law to work in your best interests, not our own.

[7] Notice how these companies often word it like “You get to keep 45% of the recovery!” like it’s a present to you. Blerg. It’s your damn money–you are paying them, not the other way around.

[8] Each infringement is likely worth significantly more than that $1000, too (if the copyright is registered, likely many times more)–so you’re already starting in a hole.

[9] Each state has its own laws for corporations, but most say something to the effect that “the purpose of the corporation is to make money for its shareholders.”

[10] Yes, there are exceptions–we all know artists whose work isn’t all that but who seem to make money hand-over-fist with it.

Blockchain is for Blockheads

Remember what I wrote recently? Seems a respected investment hedge fund agrees:

The use of blockchain in operating an image copyright platform accomplishes nothing. KODAKOne intends to utilize smart contracts and a crypto-asset to solve the problem of copyright infringement, but the business idea is flat-out silly. Cryptographically hashing an image into a blockchain doesn’t prove the provenance of intellectual property, a blockchain does not reduce the resources necessary for copyright enforcement […]

It’s definitely worth reading the whole original post on this, from the UK’s Mr. David Gerard, as he shares more on what a total scam blockchain is for photographers overall.

Look, if you want to protect your copyrights, REGISTER your work with the USCO and hire an attorney to go after infringers (it costs much less than you may think).

Exclusive Licenses and Your Business

Have you ever granted exclusive rights to your work? If so, I sure hope you got paid enough for it because you may not be able to sue for infringement of that work. Maybe. It depends. Language matters and this is (likely, surprisingly) technical stuff.

A new case doesn’t help; actually, it kind of muddies the water and I’m sure it will be debated by lawyers in filings and cases to come. In Fathers & Daughters Nevada, LLC v. Lingfu Zhang, Case No. 3:16-cv-1443-SI (D. Or January 17, 2018) (“Zhang“) the court split a fine hair about standing and exclusive licensing and it has some copyright owners and licensors[1] worried.

Get popcorn, this is going to take some explaining.

Courts require something called standing in order to sue (for any suit). Standing roughly means that the plaintiff is the person who was harmed/affected by the defendant’s illegal actions. If you get punched by a jerk in a bar, you have standing to sue the jerk for assault and battery because you were put in fear and physically harmed. Your friend who, from across the room, saw the jerk hit you? She does not have standing to sue the jerk for assault and battery for that punch, because she wasn’t actually harmed by it[2]. Got it? Good.

Now, a bit about copyright… it is often described as a bundle of sticks where each stick represents an exclusive right. That bundle actually consists of six big sticks: one for each of the rights listed in the statute[3]: to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works based upon the work, to distribute copies of the work, to perform the work publicly, to display the work publicly, and to record and perform the work by means of an audio transmission. Each of those big sticks is made up of its own sub-sticks, and they can be very specific sub-sticks. For example, the right to reproduce can be made up of the sub-sticks “the right to reproduce the work in print,” or “the right to reproduce the work in the USA,” or “the right to reproduce the work for 6 months,” or those sub-sticks can be combined into the stick “the right to reproduce the work in print in the USA for 6 months.”

It’s an imperfect metaphor, but it’s about as good as we can get and it’ll be helpful here.

Anyway, an original owner of a copyright owns all these sticks[4] and can share any of them by non-exclusive licensing. After granting a non-exclusive license, the copyright owner still holds the stick. The licensee doesn’t get the stick but the license means s/he/it can’t be hit with that stick now, so to speak[5].

However, (and here’s the thing I bet you didn’t know) when an owner grants an exclusive license for any of these rights, these (sub-)sticks, s/he is handing that stick over to the licensee–and (often) letting go of it. The statutes and case law say that an exclusive license is tantamount to ownership of the right conveyed in the license[6]. For example, if you grant the exclusive reproduction right in print in the USA for 6 months, you no longer own any right to reproduce the work in print in the USA for that 6 months.

Now to bring the pieces together… to bring a suit for copyright infringement, to have standing to sue, a plaintiff has to be the person who owned the rights actually infringed at the time of the infringement. In other words, the plaintiff had to have that particular stick when the infringement happened. Let’s look at some examples to make that clearer.

Example 1
Betty makes an illustration and grants a non-exclusive license to Forbes for display use on its website for 6 months only. Sometime during those 6 months, BloggerBob copies the article and the illustration and displays them on his own website. Forbes cannot sue for infringement of the illustration[7] because it only has a non-exclusive license and Betty still owns the exclusive right. Betty still has the stick for website display during that time and so she has standing and can sue BloggerBob for the infringement.

Example 2
Betty makes an illustration and grants an exclusive license to Forbes for display use on its website for 6 months only. Sometime during those 6 months, BloggerBob copies the article and the illustration and displays them on his own website. Forbes can sue for infringement of the illustration because it has an exclusive license for website display for those 6 months! Here, Betty does not own the exclusive right any more–she has handed that stick to Forbes for the 6 months–and so Betty cannot sue BloggerBob for that infringement.

Example 2a
Now, just because Betty has handed a stick to Forbes doesn’t mean she didn’t keep all the other sticks. During this same 6 month Forbes license window, Tony Tshirt illicitly prints Betty’s illustration on clothing and sells the items. Betty (not Forbes) has standing to sue Tony for that infringement because he infringed on a different exclusive right that she still owns.


Okay, now here is where it gets uncomfortable and confusing. In a previous case[8] in the 9th Circuit (Minden, as well as other cases and in other places), the court said that a copyright owner can grant an exclusive license to a licensee and (wait for it) still keep that same stick–essentially saying both the licensor and the licensee have the stick, while excluding all others from having it. The terms of the exclusive licenses in Minden and these other cases included the owner retaining some the right explicitly or the licensor had something called “beneficial ownership” of the right (for example, was paid royalties based on the exploitation of the right granted[9]).

However, in the Zhang case I mentioned at the start of this post, the court said the copyright owner, when it granted an exclusive license for the right later infringed, gave that stick to someone else entirely and so didn’t have standing to sue. That is, they didn’t keep any of the stick for themselves (nor get any beneficial ownership), and since it was that stick’s rights that were infringed, the copyright owner could not sue. Ouch.

Yeah, I know, it sounds a lot like the same as Minden, but with a different outcome, but it isn’t, quite. The difference is very much in the wording of the licenses– technical stuff. Honestly, these issues are sometimes difficult even for attorneys to understand, and we are highly trained to understand them! Don’t feel bad if you don’t totally grok this stuff.

So why am I bothering to tell you about this? What does this mean for you as someone who licenses your work to others? Basically, you need to be very careful of your license language and, if you are going to grant an exclusive license especially, make sure you do it in a way that works for you AND that you get paid enough for it.

Too many artists just throw around words like “exclusive” without understanding that they could seriously impact rights and the artist’s livelihood. Don’t be one of them. Also, don’t sign contracts unless you fully understand all the terms and their effects.

Best practices would be to hire an attorney to draft your licenses and to read contracts offered to you by your clients. Yes, this will cost you some money but (a) you can write it off and (b) it may save you much more in the long run. Ignorance is no excuse, especially in court. Worse yet, when you throw around legal-sounding words without understanding their effects, you are still bound by their effects.

Remember: you are an artist who is running an arts-based business–you need to run it like the real business it is.


[1] A licensor is someone who grants licenses to another party (that party is the licensee).

[2] I know someone reading this is going to say she could sue for something else, and maybe she could, but I’m not going there. Just roll with the example being limited to civil assault and battery.

[3] 17 USC §106

[4] A later owner, someone to whom the copyright was assigned (transferred) may very well own all of these rights, but it’s possible s/he/it may not. To use the favorite phrase of attorneys everywhere: it depends. It can get very complicated and I don’t want to go into all that here.

[5] I mean, a licensor can’t sue the licensee for a use covered by the license granted to the licensee.

[6] 17 U.S.C. § 501(b); Minden Pictures, Inc. v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 795 F. 3d 997 (9th Cir. 2015); Silvers v. Sony Pictures Entm’t, Inc., 402 F.3d 881, 890 (9th Cir. 2005); etc.

[7] Forbes’ rights in the article may be an entirely different story–I’m only discussing the illustration here.

[8] Minden, 795 F. 3d.

[9] Broad. Music, Inc. v. Hirsch, 104 F.3d 1163, 1166 (9th Cir. 1997).


New Rules! (for photo © registrations) UPDATED

Back in December of 2016, the US Copyright Office (USCO) proposed new rules for group photo registrations, including significant changes to registering a pile of unpublished photos. I wrote about the proposed rules then. Now, the final rules are out and they mostly match up with the proposed ones, but not completely.

The new rules make two categories of group photo registrations (leaving out databases, which are a different kettle of fish and most individual artists will not have to address those, so I’m skipping them here). The two categories are GRPPH for Group (of) Published Photographs and GRUPH for Group (of) Unpublished Photographs. Now, most of the rules are the same for both, making life a little easier as you will have to learn, essentially, one system.

First, though, you’ll notice that you still have to keep published and unpublished separated. The USCO looked at the issue and they simply can’t change that as it is not a “rule” but rather part of the law itself. The USCO has the authority to create and modify rules, but it can’t change the underlying law or create rules that conflict with those laws. It does sound like they think the split should be dropped, though, so maybe that will come sometime in the not terribly distant future?

Oh, and about the unpublished photographs… you will no longer be able to do the unlimited number of photos as a collection option. It is GRUPH only from here out.

Anyway, the new rules… first, the commonalities. These are the rules for both groups:

  • must have a title for the whole group
  • must have titles for each photograph in the group (can be just the file names, but with character restrictions)
  • limit of 750 photographs per registration
  • all photos must have the same author[1]
  • must register online–no paper registrations will be accepted
  • must pay the $55 fee
  • must submit digital deposit copies (jpeg, gif, tiff only), preferably in an uploaded .zip file containing all the photographs (that must be <500 megabytes total[2]);[3]
  • must submit a separate document that lists the photos in a very specific manner (more on that below) that should be included in the .zip file.

For published photographs, the pilot program is ending with these new rules. If you’ve been a part of the pilot program, the USCO should be contacting you about the changes. As for the registration differences, published photos have these additional rules: they all must be first published within the same calendar year (i.e., 2015 or 2018, etc.), same as the current rule; but, and this is new, they do not have to have been first published in the same country. Also, you will need the date of first publication for each photograph.

Now, about that list document… this is going to be a bit of extra work, but it really will be helpful in the case of an infringement as all the information about the deposit copies will be easily accessible. For this document, which the USCO says should be either xls (an Excel file) or a pdf, there are nitpicky rules. I suggest making a template and sticking to it.

First, the document itself must be named in a very specific manner: the title of the group plus the case number assigned to the application by the electronic registration system. Yes, that means you can’t name the document until after you have created the application online and get a case number, but you can still prep the document (that will be uploaded with the deposit copies) and have it ready, just add the case number to the title. An example for a group registration of unpublished photos that Photo Betty is making from her trip to Hawaii might be Group Unpublished Hawaii Photographs Case Number 123456789.xls. Or, for published photographs from the same trip, Group Published Hawaii Photographs Case Number 987654321.xls.[4]

The contents of the document need to be, in order:

  • sequential numbering (i.e., 1, 2, 3…)
  • title of the photograph (this may be the same as the file name)
  • file name of the photograph (no characters other than letters, numbers, and spaces).

So, for example, the contents of the document for unpublished photos might look something like[5]:

  1. title: Maui at Dusk 1 file: Maui1.jpg
  2. title: Maui at Dusk 2 file: Maui2.jpg
  3. (etc.)

If the photos are published, then you add the date of first publication. So, the example above, if Betty published them on her stock photo site on January 15, 2018, would be:

  1. title: Maui at Dusk 1 file: Maui1.jpg pub. date: 1/15/2018
  2. title: Maui at Dusk 2 file: Maui2.jpg pub. date: 1/15/2018
  3. (etc.)

That’s it and, really, it’s not that terrible.

More importantly, the rules specifically state that photographs registered as a part of one of these groups will each be individually covered by the registration. That is a very big deal. That eliminates one of the biggest arguments defendants make–that is that any one photograph is only a tiny part of the whole registration and so the damages must be less or, even, that fair use applies. Nope, now it will be clear that each photograph in the group gets the full measure of damages and is fully protected as its own self (not a part of a greater whole). Huge benefit there, especially for unpublished photos where this has been a particular problem.

These new rules go into effect on February 20, 2018. For the detailed information, go here (pdf).


UPDATE: The USCO has come out with help pages that include links to templates (Excel) for making the lists. Go here for unpublished and here for published.


[1] “Author” does not necessarily mean “photographer” although it can. If you are an individual photographer then you are the author of your photos. Easy-peasy. However, for studios with multiple photographers and other employers of photographers, the employer is the author of all the work, even if created by multiple photographers.

[2] The photos may be compressed to fit the file size requirement.

[3] You can send flash drives or DVDs or similar instead, but it’s really easier (and much faster to get your certificate) to upload the files.

[4] While the rules do not specifically say you must say “group” in the title, it has been preferred that one do that and I suspect that preference will continue. It won’t hurt to use that format so I suggest sticking to it, at least for now.

[5] The new rules state that the information I note must be included, as I have it here, but it doesn’t say what the preferred format is. This is a best guess for how they want it from the description in the rule. I expect the USCO will clarify in the instructions on their website soon. For example, maybe the Excel sheet can have the words “title” and “file name” (and “pub date”) in the column headers rather than in the text.

Blockchain Copyright Services: Seductive, but Unwise

Kodak is joining the list of companies offering blockchain-related services for photographers. While I applaud the idea of photographers getting paid, I’m not a fan of these services. Mostly, the financials are not, in the long run, good for photographers.
Not by a long shot.

I know exactly what many people are going to say: without much effort, photographers will get paid for uses they didn’t get paid for before. Thing is, that may not be true at all; and, even when it is true, the amounts will be less than they could get if they pursued these infringements, and they are infringements. Most of all, photographers will be giving up way too much for the convenience these services are selling.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the process and the financials…

First, a photographer makes a photograph and registers the copyright in it using one of these services (any of ‘em–let’s call our hypothetical company “Block,” just for ease). Block submits the registration to the USCO and, hopefully, doesn’t make any significant error on the registration application (this is the first problem, in my book, because registrations are not just “fill in the blank” easy and if it gets screwed up… ouch). Anyway, Block also assigns the work its unique ID via blockchain. It also incorporates all sorts of things that sound fabulously whizbangy and techno-impressive, like connected thumbnails of the deposit copy and the registration.

The big selling point is that the services will patrol the interwebs looking for your image and, if the image is used, will pursue payment if previously unlicensed. These uses are billed for, through Block, who then collects on these “post-use licenses” in part because the blockchain ID will “authenticate the image.
In theory.

The reality is not so fabulous.

First, what the hell does “authenticate” even mean here and what good does it do? I mean, seriously, is an infringer going to bend over and pay just because you have blockchain proof it is your registered-copyright photo and, thus, that they infringed? Nope. No more than infringers do now when confronted with existing forms of evidence (evidence, by the way, that has been used by courts long before blockchain came into being[1]). Infringers, and these are infringements we’re talking about, will refuse to pay just as they do now.

Maybe there’s one exception: infringers might pay more often, but only if the amounts demanded are tiny. This is the business theory, at least, for these companies: they will collect something for more of the infringements and that those amounts will add up. While this is great for those companies, who will make lots in volume, this is short-term thinking at best for individual creative pros (who will not make it up in volume and who lose more…keep reading).

Let’s say that Block bills a whopping $50 per blog use infringement (again, they are calling it a “post-use license” to sell it to the infringers, because it sounds nicer than calling them infringers). If you are a pro, I think you should NEVER sell a license for $50. Ever. Even for a personal blog use. It lowers the value of your work. I don’t care if it’s used on some tiny not-for-profit or personal blog, if you are a pro, a license to display your art is worth more than $50. But still, let’s stick with that amount (which, I suspect, may even be high for these services) because, at that number, Block (etc.) will get a bunch of these “sales.”

The individual artist, however, will have to collect on 15 of these $50 “licenses” to earn the minimum statutory damages owed, under the law, for a single infringement ($750)[2]. Worse yet: I’ve heard that some of these “services” charge 45-55% of the fees collected (a ridiculously high percentage, by the way), so now you’re looking at double that 15, just to get the minimum the law says you must get for a single infringement of a photograph whose copyright was registered before the infringement. And remember, the first thing you did here was register the copyright with the US Copyright Office so, um, yeah.

In other words, you’ve done the (allegedly) hard part–registering the copyright–so why in the hell are you giving away all the financial benefits of doing that?!?

But it gets even worse on the financial side. Let’s say you, through Block, have granted a bunch of these $50 licenses for online use. In fact, let’s say Block even billed and collected $500 for a “post-use license” for use on a small business commercial blog (extremely unlikely, but still). Now, that same photograph gets used by MegaCorp on its website and, in the negotiations, MegaCorp says it will pay $2500 to settle–five times the largest amount you ever got for a license for that photograph. You know that the license is worth more like $10,000 so you refuse (assuming you can–the agreement with the service may have you waive the right of refusal) and the case goes to court. Not only is it very possible that the court will not award you more than $2500, because, in part, of your low price history, it is unlikely that you will collect attorneys’ fees since you refused what appears to be, in that context, a reasonable offer, pre-suit[3]. You have, in essence, set your value at almost nothing because Block licensed your work (post-use!) for almost nothing, over and over. Even if you have licenses that you have issued that are more valuable, you will have to fight it out in court because your own evidence shows you will accept less. Ugh.

Now, as if the financials could be balanced by the services provided, let’s look at the blockchain proof these services are touting: short answer is you don’t need it. Really, it is of no added benefit to you, although it might make Block’s work easier. Sure, if you are asking for essentially a micro-payment and can wave the evidence of registration, etc., at the infringer, you might get paid quickly. However, in fact, in some ways by doing this, Block (and thus you) is doing the work of the defendant and that removes a tactical tool for later (litigation) use.

For example, assuming you registered the copyright shortly after creation of the work, you don’t need to prove that the work is validly registered. Under the law, if you registered the copyright to the photograph before or within 5 years of its first publication, then the legal burden is on the defendant to prove that the work is NOT properly registered, not on you to prove that it is[4]. It’s expensive to get deposit copies and the defendant should bear those costs since it bears the burden of breaking the registration. So, actually, you aren’t making it easier for them to pay you, you are taking away some of the tools your attorney can use to pursue them.

Oh, and about “your attorney,” if you use one of these services you likely agree to use their attorneys for any litigation resulting from a use they found. Their attorneys are contract attorneys who are getting paid very, very little to handle your case. I know because I have been approached by and refused to work with some of these companies as the rates offered were unreasonable.

Finally, and not for nothing, at least Kodak is using its own cryptocurrency for payment. This fad is not a good thing, as Warren Buffet has noted, and I agree. There is way too much uncertainty in the values, including the very likely possibility of total loss. Get paid in real currency, if for no other reason then you know that it isn’t financing North Korea or human trafficking or other crimes[5].

Look, I totally understand that creative pros want the business side of their lives to be easier. Technology can help with that. It’s easier than ever to register your copyrights yourself and to track your works for infringements, again by yourself. If you don’t want to do the work of pursuing the cases, you can hire someone in-house to handle a lot of it, like a studio manager or even a (paid) intern. You’ll still end up way ahead of what you would get with these services. There are also lawyers like me who will help you, even for many of the small cases, and (usually) for a lower percentage than these services charge.

In my opinion, if you are a creative professional, you owe it to yourself to treat your business like a business, and that means making decisions not on the basis of “how easy is it?” but rather “what will benefit my business the most?” When it comes to infringements, that means not giving away the farm for seductively easy now.

[1] Like, for example, you can (and should) make copies of the deposit copies yourself and keep them in your own files with the registration. The metadata in these files will authenticate them.

[2] For a timely registered work, statutory damages must be between $750 and $30,000 for non-willful infringement, and up to $150,000 for willful. 17 USC §504.

[3] Courts have wide discretion in the award of attorneys’ fees under 17 USC §505 and, these days, are less likely to award them if a plaintiff has refused an objectively reasonable settlement offer.

[4] 17 USC §410(c): In any judicial proceedings the certificate of a registration made before or within five years after first publication of the work shall constitute prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate.

[5] See, e.g.,;; and,

Words Matter

Ive worked full-time in creative industries since I left my PhD program[1] in the late 1990s, long before I went to law school. Ive taught about the business-side of being a creative pro, at the university level. Law school added to my quiver of skills and knowledge, but lets just say that I have an understanding of the professional creative world and the business world. If there is one thing Id love to impart to all creative pros, it is this: words matter.

Sounds kind of flippant, but its not. When you let those whose interests are opposed to yours dictate the language used to discuss those interests, you start from a very weak position. In fact, you may have already lost.

In that context, there are two words that immediately spring to mind that creative professionals must stop using: content and plagiarism.

Lets start with the latter first: plagiarism is not a synonym for copyright infringement and we must stop using it as such. Plagiarism is a failure to attribute the original creator of something, usually words, cited in something else[2]. For example, if someone writes an article that includes:

Law school added to my quiver of skills and knowledge, but lets just say that I have an understanding of the professional creative world

without noting that it was a quote of something I wrote, that would be plagiarism but it may or may not be infringement. Plagiarism is a passing off as ones own work the work of another, and almost exclusively in the academic world, although it can appear in written work like journalism, too. In many ways, plagiarism has a closer connection to publicity rights (and definitely to moral rights, which we do not have in the USA, really), since it is about attribution to the original author. Importantly, if you take and use someones work and include an attribution to that person, it is not plagiarism…
…but it may very well be infringement.

When we use plagiarize for infringe, we muddy the waters. A lot. This misuse leads to people thinking that they can use any work, for free, just as long as they include a credit line or other form of attribution. It also contributes to the misguided notion that, if a work appears without a copyright notice or attribution, then it is free to use.

I spend a lot of my time teaching infringers that hard (and currently expensive) lesson, but what worries me is that the more the culture sees attribution as a free-pass to infringement, the more likely Congress will enact laws reflecting that notion or courts will give it more weight than they ought in fair use analyses.

To protect against that, we must be diligent to use the proper words. For most non-academics, your concern will be about infringement, not plagiarism–call it by its correct term.


Turning to the other word, content, this one could practically drive me to drink.
Early in the morning.

Using the word content is a great way to turn any creative work into nothing more than filler of no value itself. It also subconsciously makes the holder of the content into the more important thing.

Content reduces the value of your work to practically nothing[3]. Content gets shared (that is, freely displayed and distributed) on platforms[4] that dont even value it enough to monetize it. Instead, these platforms monetize the data provided by the people who use the platforms. And those platform companies are all valued in the billions of dollars, because of that data they gather and sell.

The heartbreaking reality is that artists have been sold the idea that their content isnt really worth anything but that exposure of their content on these platforms will lead to riches. If your content trends, then some big company will call and offer you a huge contract to make art for it–lucky you! While that is vaguely possible, it is about as likely as winning the Powerball lottery and it is business insanity to rely on that minuscule chance.

Sadly, each time you post a work on one of these platforms, for free, to share, the only person/entity not making money from the exploitation of your work is,wait for it,

What you create is in fact of enormous value and should not be reduced to a notion of filler (content). If you are offering your creative work on these platforms, free to share on those platforms (if not more broadly), you are giving away too much. The art/photos/words/music you create is what draws those users to the platforms! No content means no users means no money for the tech overlords or the advertising businesses that suck off their data teats.

Adding insult to injury is that by freely offering your work on these platforms, you are helping to train the average user of those platforms that your work is of no value. Your photograph, painstakingly created with a crew and lights and years of experience, is of the same value as any users pic of their cat, because you both got paid the same amount to post it on that platform. Same for your writing, same for your music, same for your illustrations. AND, if your work is free on platform X, then why should anyone have to pay to post it on platform Q or, for that matter, on their blog or small business website? After all, it is only content and content is free stuff the purpose of which is to get freely shared.

Look, no one will ever value your work more than you demand or more than you value it. When have you ever given an estimate to a client for a project and had that client say it will pay you double that amount? Doesnt happen[5]. Call your work what it is, by its proper name: art, photograph, essay, book, song, composition, illustration, painting, whatever. Dont let the tech overlords tell you what your work is worth by controlling the language used to describe it.

Honor yourself and honor your creative work by using its proper name and insisting others do as well. Also, register your copyrights in your art, dont give it away, and finally, go after its infringers. It is your work, your creation, and you deserve more than just attribution.


[1]Large parts of my graduate studies were in linguistics, by the way.

[2] See the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition here:

[3] Worse yet, an artist or author of any stripe calling her/himself a content creator is tantamount to that person saying I make stuff of no real intrinsic or extrinsic value. Do not be that person.

[4] Platform itself means something higher than its surroundings, so the tech companies have taught us to value their works much more than the creative work on them.

[5] Except maybe between good, real friends.