Why Not?

I recently noticed that I have a lot of non-US clients. Canadians, Germans, Scots, Australia… they’re from all over, really. Percentage-wise, it’s a very surprisingly large chunk of my business. While I’m thrilled for the work and that these people are protecting their rights here in the USA, it does make me wonder why I don’t have more American clients. 

All of these non-American clients have registered their copyrights properly here in the USA (some with English not being their first language) and pursue infringers with the assistance of their own personal attorney. They track their own work online and send me cases they find. Despite being overseas (or at least in Canada), I have filed suit for some of them, even. Those clients couldn’t do that without the understanding that at some point in the process they would have to make the trip here to the USA, on their own dime, er, pence/Euro (whatever), to appear in court. For some of these clients, that would be a big hit financially, but they believe in their rights strongly enough to do it and, of course, it has paid off for them.

So, the question I find myself asking is why don’t American artists take the simple steps to register their works regularly and do the same? What is it about the process that compels Americans either to not bother registering at all (and far too many of you fall into that category) or to choose to use a “service” that compels the artists to use the company’s “infringement protection” process where the company will collect a far greater percentage of any settlement than an actual, personal attorney. Oh, and the settlements are often for far less than an attorney will negotiate, for bonus points.  

I know of some very well respected artists who make beautiful work that is ripped off all the time, but who tell me they can’t be bothered with registering much less going after the bastards. At the same time, they complain about how often they find their work being used… all over, by companies large and small. I tell them “Register it now and future infringements will have statutory damages available!”

They nod, say they know they ought to, but then do nothing.

The logic escapes me. 

We Bought A Vehicle. You Get A Blog Post.

The boyfriend and I bought a new vehicle over the weekend and it made me think about how creatives really need better legal help—and probably don’t even know when they need it. Yes, my mind does that—thinks about my clients while I’m doing something like car shopping. Whatever, the result is you get this blog post and hopefully are awakened to some legal issues you might be unaware of.

So, our story. This vehicle is the first major purchase between us as a couple. We’re not married but we do live together and are as committed as two people could be; still, as unmarrieds, the purchase would not be community property as it would here in California, by default, if we were married. That is, if you are in a community property state, like California, and you acquire an asset when you are married, that asset will be (usually—there are exceptions) community property of the spouses. Roughly speaking, each spouse owns the whole asset with the other spouse, equally. But, as unmarrieds, we didn’t have that option so we had to ask ourselves, “How should we title the new vehicle?” We could have held title jointly (i.e., both of our names on the title, as co-owners), which would mean we both would have to sign anything related to the vehicle (like upon selling it) and if we broke up, we’d have to negotiate the ownership; on the good side, if one of us died the other would automatically own the whole thing without going through probate (much like community property). Another option: one of us or the other could hold the title individually; but then if the owner dies, who gets it? The answer is it depends on whether there is a will but, whatever, it means probating the vehicle and that takes time and money. In California (and some other states), another option is naming a “transfer on death” (TOD) beneficiary. There, a vehicle can be titled in one party’s name with “TOD Beneficiary [name of person]” on the actual title, which means that, kind of like with joint ownership, on the death of the titled owner, the vehicle is automatically the property of the TOD beneficiary named. The risk? The titled owner could change the TOD beneficiary at any time without the consent of her/his/their partner (that could be an ugly surprise, later). 

I’ll bet money most of you didn’t know these options, especially the last one. In fact, the dealership (a major one) we worked with didn’t even know about the TOD option. Anyway, with the exception of “community property” anyone—married or not—can choose any of those options, it just takes the right paperwork to make it legit. However, each option has advantages and disadvantages, so you need someone who has only your best interests in mind to facilitate. Speaking with an attorney can help you make the best choice for you.

Oh, and yes, we made the best choice for us. 

That was just for a vehicle; if you are considering buying (or even refinancing) real estate, married or not, the options and ramifications are even more complex. Your realtor or mortgage person isn’t going to be able to explain your choices to you while specifically looking out for your best interests first (like lawyers are required to, by law). They’re going to have their own agendas to pursue. That can cost you or your partner lots of money—maybe not now, but eventually.

For example, here in California, there are property tax ramifications for transfers to non-spouses that might be eliminated with proper planning and paperwork. That is, you can add someone to your title (in certain ways) without a re-assessment, but if the original owner dies, then generally there will be a reassessment for property tax purposes. Same if you don’t add your partner to the title and then die, leaving the property to him/her/them. Imagine thinking you’ve taken care of your beloved by naming him as the inheritor of your house, only to have him hit with a massive and unaffordable increase in property tax when he does inherit! 

Look, Adulting can be a pain in the ass. Lawyers can actually make it much easier. When you are considering combining homes, buying assets, or other big life choices like getting married, talk with a lawyer first to make sure you do it the best way possible.  

Workers are Employees, Usually

Here in California, the legislature just passed a bill the governor is expected to sign, and it may affect you. Note, this may affect you if you are a California business (including sole props) OR if you ever do business in California, like, say, a photo shoot here, even if you are a Kentucky business.

This new law (assuming it is signed) codifies a California Supreme Court decision and, basically, says that most workers are employees, not independent contractors. That means that all the labor laws apply to those workers, including minimum wage, workers compensation insurance, payment schedules, and so much more. See my post on paying your people ON TIME for one important part. 

The new law specifically carves our exceptions for many creative professions, including graphic designers, fine artists, photographers (with some conditions, more below), and writers/editors/cartoonists (also with similar conditions). But don’t try to shoehorn your crew into these exceptions—it just won’t fly. 

As for the exceptions’ conditions mentioned above, the main one is if you make more than 35 “submissions” to a single hiring entity per year, then you are an employee of that entity. “Submissions” means, for photographers, essentially an entire shoot—not singular images. So, if you shoot for Company X for 5 days, that would be a single submission for the 35 count. For writers (etc.), submission is pretty poorly defined but, roughly, it seems to be that submissions on a singular topic or issue, like a series on women in prison made up of 5 articles, would be one submission for the 35 count. 

Short answer: California law in this area is very complex and if you aren’t sure what’s what, please talk to an attorney. You don’t want to face the consequences if you are a hiring entity that mis-characterizes your workers, even temporary ones—those costs will be much higher than paying an attorney for advice up-front. 

Finally, although I’m writing about California law in this post, I have to say that even if your state does not have laws requiring paying your crew as employees, you really ought to. Is it a pain in the ass? Does it cost your business more money? Yes, to both (you do get tax write-offs, though), but it is the right thing ethically, in my opinion.

It Adds Up

One of the big arguments forwarded for the CASE Act (aka “small claims”) is that it will permit copyright owners to pursue small infringements. I’m here to tell you that anyone can do that already, even without that possible new law. Also, those small claims add up. Here’s just one example…

But first, the big disclaimer: past results are not predictive of future outcomes. I mean, each case is its own thing and just because I got $X for a client doesn’t mean I will get the same for you. There are no guarantees. Thank you for playing.

Anyhoo….I have a client I’ll call “Q” because I don’t want any future infringers to use the following against this person. This client doesn’t bring me a ton of cases but there has been a fairly steady stream: 20-something of them since 2017 and all were online uses of Q’s photos. Also, like with any client, not all of Q’s cases settle although many do. To this point, I have not litigated any of Q’s claims. In part, this is because Q is understandably litigation-averse, and that is fine by me. I will never be the kind of lawyer who says “FILE! File everything and often!” As I’ve said before, filing should be a last resort, not an opening move, and sometimes filing isn’t the right choice for all sorts of reasons; so, I’m perfectly okay with Q’s choice not to file every time a settlement isn’t reached.

Recently, Q let me know that we had topped $100,000 in settlements and that it had made a difference in Q’s financial life. I was thrilled! This is exactly why I do what I do–to get artists the money they are, in my opinion, owed.

Now, any of you doing the math at home can ballpark-estimate the average settlement amount, even though you’ll have to guess at precisely how many cases settled. Individually, in fact, most of the settlements were in the mid-ish 4-figures. There were a couple of 5-figure ones here and there, but those were rarer. Together, though, they make a healthy total, even after paying my contingency-based fees. I’m happy to have helped protect Q’s rights and increase Q’s bottom line.

Q’s total was made possible because Q registers the copyrights in Q’s photos. Those timely registrations mean that Q can get statutory damages in court (and possibly attorneys fees) when those copyrights are infringed; infringers know this or learn it from me and, when they accept that reality, they often choose to settle. Since most of these cases were small business website use, the value of each infringement is not huge (no, you almost assuredly will not get $30K, much less $150K, in court for a single small website use of a photo–yes possible but let’s be real…), so the individual settlement numbers are not large, but each is valuable enough for me to do what I can for Q. Moreover, as the title of this post says, they do add up.

Now, for anyone who says this is some sort of tainted money, you’re wrong. Getting paid by someone who has stolen your art, disregarding your right to consent (or not) to its use, is not wrong or dirty. Wrongdoers need to make amends for their actions and, until we outlaw having to pay for things, money is the best way to do that. Guilting the artist who gets money from infringers is like guilting any victim–don’t go there. This is about correcting the wrongs of the infringers–infringers who have seriously damaged so many creative businesses. I have clients who have told me that the money they make from pursuing infringers has made up for all their lost license sales, and more. This is a good thing.

Anyway, like I said in the disclaimer, there are no guarantees; however, copyright registration does open the serious possibility of additional income to any creative professional, without expensive litigation. I know I’m not the only attorney who takes these “small matters” on contingency, particularly as long as the work is timely registered. You can find a good attorney who, like me, cares about her/his/their clients and who wants to help. Don’t wait for the CASE Act to pass when you can register your work now and infringements that start after the effective date will have the possibility of statutory damages; do that and your business will thank you.

Put on a Gorilla Suit

(I first wrote about this many, many years ago, but today feels like a good day to share this story again)

Several years ago, the wife of the photographer who got me into the photo biz (the fabulous Stephen Webster) bought him the at-the-time newly (re)released original Planet of the Apes movies, which he desperately wanted, for a birthday present. She wanted to surprise him with it at a dinner they were going to have, with another couple, in a nice restaurant. The surprise wasn’t just the gift– it was that someone in a gorilla suit would deliver it during the meal. Sadly, she told me on the phone as we gabbed about the impending birthday, waiting for her husband to get out of the darkroom, the person she had lined up had bailed.

I immediately volunteered! I thought it was a great idea and she seemed stuck so, I thought, why not. It wasn’t until after I hung up that I thought, “Oh hell, what have I just agreed to do?! I’m going to look an idiot…”

Then, I thought some more and the old saying “in for a penny, in for a pound” popped in my head. I decided I would be the best gorilla I could be.

On the appointed day, I parked my car, put on that gorilla suit (I had already blacked out around my eyes to make sure he wouldn’t recognize me) grabbed the gift bag, and headed out.

(Yes, that really is me)

On a Saturday evening, in mid-July Columbus, Ohio heat and humidity, I gorilla’ed down a crowded neighborhood sidewalk, making ape noises at random people. I gorilla’ed into the restaurant, right past the maitre d’ (at whom I gorilla-hooted), and found the foursome.

Then the fun really started. I abused the poor victim and his wife and the other couple… but especially him. I pulled his hair, sniffed bits, put my fingers into his food, made lots of ape-ish noises, and even threw bread. Then, as magnificently as I could, I chucked the gift at the honoree, made very excited ape noises while beating my chest, and left, still gorilla-ing all the way back to my car, unrevealed.

The people in the place had laughed and stared and everyone had a great time. This was before ubiquitous cell phones so there are few photos and no videos, but the crowd seemed entertained.

The next Monday, at the studio, Steve excitedly told me the story of what had happened. He said how amazing the ape had been, how the person really pulled it off, and most of all that he couldn’t figure out who it was! I totally played along for hours.

He was stunned when, eventually, he found out it had been me. If I remember correctly, I had to make ape noises before he got it.

Why am I sharing this story? Because I was completely liberated by that suit. I could never imagine doing half what I did in my regular clothes, but wearing the costume, I could be the ape. Every time I have to do something I haven’t done before, as a lawyer, I remember putting on the gorilla suit.

I encourage you to do the same in your business. Play the role of the fabulous artist. Next time you have a one-on-one new client meeting or event where you might meet potential clients, wear fabulous clothes you wouldn’t normally wear, but that you imagine your professional hero would wear. Just go with it. Pretend you have confidence. Do this especially if you are normally shy and self-deprecating. Pretend you are everything you want to be. Just have fun with it.

As others have said, fake it until you make it. Don’t fake your creative work, of course, but do fake the personal image and the confidence. Wear a costume and play the role. At worst, you’ll have fun. At best, you’ll get a project and be one big step closer to making real the imaginary person you were portraying.

On Abundance, redux

I wrote this originally back in 2012, but it is even more needed today so I decided to update it.

Everyone talks about how there is an abundance of content creators today. How there is more creative work than ever. How everyone is a photographer, a writer, a curator (don’t get me started on how that word is misused), a musician… we’re all making stuff. And, the argument goes, because there is an abundance of stuff, none of the individual work is really worth much if anything now.

Here’s what these arguments about abundance in creativity and the pricing model get spectacularly wrong: the reality is there is no abundance of good creative work. Sure, there is an abundance of photography and music and writing and art, but most of it is, frankly, shit.

There is abundance in the creative industries in the same way there is abundance in drivers–there are billions of car drivers globally and just about anyone can do it–but how many people do it well? I don’t just mean those who drive better than Mr. I-go-55-in-the-fast-lane-man and his crappy driving brethren out there. No, I mean, how many professional race car drivers are there? Not very many. Ergo, they are highly valued.

Real creative professionals (in whatever discipline) are like pro race car drivers. They can do things very few others can. Their skills are extremely specialized and what they do is, simply put, not of the same quality as what regular people do.

The media and, worse, the tech companies that control the discourse on this subject within the media, have tried to convince us that your creative work is the same as anyone who tries to make something of the same media. Further, because it is the same (in their argument), that work is of the same value and, final coffin nail, because there is so much of that work available now, that value is near zero. In their world, for example, any pro photographer’s photography is the same as mine (for the record, I am not a photographer) and hardly worth anything since there are so many “photographers” out there. That’s like me saying I’m just like, and of the same value as, Mario Andretti or Michael Schumacher because I know how to drive a stick-shift and don’t completely suck at it.

Bullshit.

Every time you let them call you a “content provider” rather than by your proper title you let them define you as less than you are. You are a Photographer or an Illustrator or an Artist or a Writer (etc.). You CREATE. There are damn few people on this planet who actually create and create well. How dare you accept their belittling bullshit about who you are and the “abundance” of what you do. Worse yet, how dare you call yourself anything other than by your proper title!

You, creative professional, are scarce and your creations are of high value. You are a professional race car driver. Don’t let anyone bully you into thinking otherwise.

Creator? Get a Lawyer

Most of my clients are photographers. That’s no surprise since I started working with commercial photographers in the last millennium (yes, I’m old), and long before I became an attorney. Photographers know me; they’ve come to my lectures, bought my books, read my blogs, and know that I have their backs. However, I serve all kinds of creators, artists, and writers (I generally call all of you artists, by the way).

Regardless of what kind of artist you are,  frankly, I’m shocked at how many of you don’t have lawyers.

The logic of having one is pretty simple:

  • All professional artists have businesses–if you make money from your art, you are in business.
  • All professional artists have contracts in their businesses–yours, your clients’, etc.
  • All professional artists create copyrights (and should register them).
  • All professional artists get infringed (if you haven’t yet, it’s only because you haven’t found it).
  • All professional artists may get married, will die (sorry, but let’s be real), and have assets to protect.

Obviously, then, all professional artists (actually, all artists, even amateurs) have legal issues connected to their work and, for the pros, vocation. Why, then, do so few of you have relationships with lawyers? I suspect it’s mostly the cost. Maybe a little bit of “I don’t want anyone to see how I’ve been BSing my way through my business” imposter syndrome, but mostly cost.

I’d like to suggest my Burns Less program. It’s a great option for artists who have occasional quickie questions and want someone available when they crop up, without paying a huge retainer or hefty hourly fees.

Even if you aren’t interested in that alternative fee program, I encourage you to do a simple cost-benefit analysis before you have a legal need to see if it really is as expensive as you think. The answers will likely surprise you.

For example, is it better to spend a couple of hundred now to learn how to register a copyright properly with a lawyer’s help in answering some registration-related questions first; and so that, for every infringement after, you can get at least $750 in statutory damages? Or, do you want to take your chances to maybe screw up your registration and end up getting nothing–or even paying the other side’s attorneys’ fees?

How about a typical contract your clients wants you to sign for, say, a $1000 gig–the contract with a hidden assignment clause, meaning you’d be selling your copyright totally, for that grand? If you missed that how much value and income over time would you lose?

Or maybe you’re thinking about getting married–did you know that can affect your copyrights created in the marriage? A chat with an attorney before wedded bliss could save you a bundle if it all goes south later (sadly, that happens).

If you’re afraid you’ll sound like an uneducated rube if you ask questions of an attorney, that’s your ego talking; attorneys exist to answer legal questions and any attorney who laughs at you for asking questions, well, you should fire her/him. If you think you can go it alone, that’s also your ego talking–you aren’t a lawyer (or an accountant or a doctor) so you should do your thing (make art) and let other pros do their things to enable you to do your thing better.

If you’re an artist, I hope you’ll consider me for any legal help, of course; but, more importantly, I hope you’ll find someone qualified and with whom you can establish a solid working relationship. There are other great attorneys out there who work with artists and understand their needs–I’m definitely not the only horse in this race. Talk to a few of us and find someone you feel comfortable with–who gets you. Then, go on about your business of being an artist, with the security of having a lawyer on your side.

In that process, consider the Burns Less program. It may have a puntastic name, but I’m serious about trying to help artists at a reasonable price.

What do you value?

My boyfriend used to be a senior financial analyst. He made six figures, dressed in office-type clothes, had great benefits, and worked at his computer in a climate-controlled space–an office to himself, with an actual door.
He hated it.

Now he is an apprentice electrician who works mostly outside, in all temperatures, toting a bunch of tools (and his lunch and water) from his vehicle to the site, wearing a hardhat, workboots, long workpants, and an orange safety vest. He comes home often covered in dirt and sweat, makes a fraction of his previous salary, and has almost no benefits.
He loves it.

Why am I sharing this story? Because how we value ourselves and our work matters. My boyfriend is not insane–he simply has a different set of values than many people today. What he values is creating something more lasting than a spreadsheet, working with his hands and his mind, and not working for a corporation fixated on making bank rather than making something real. Changing careers was his choice; and, although an apprentice, he is not working for free.

I, like him, have also chosen a different path. I could work in a firm and make more money (likely, a lot more money), but then I wouldn’t get to choose the cases I would take or the clients I represent. I am driven by an idealism that artists should be able to make livings making their art and that those who steal their work should be made to make up for it (and hopefully learn their lessons!).

The New York Times published an article recently discussing how how creatives are devalued and culturally expected to like it. That is something quite different from choosing to make less money in exchange for something else of personal value. It’s certainly quite different to have your work, the results of your mind and your hand, taken and used by someone who didn’t even have the decency to ask. Or to be told that you should feel lucky to have your work seen (talk about adding insult to injury!)

In my opinion, and this is one of the reasons I choose to do what I do and for whom I do it: the truth is that others should feel lucky to see and use your work. So please value yourself and your work. What you do is more than “creating content”–it is making art.

I’ll step off my soapbox, now.



Showing 2018 the Door

As we show 2018 the door, and just like we did last year, now is the time to take a look at the year that was and think about the year yet to be.

In 2018, many of us were still reasonably pre-occupied by the lunacy in Washington, DC. It’s been a tough year for anyone who respects the law and has any sense of human decency. Still, while we can’t give any of that bad stuff a pass, we also need to focus on our own lives and, crass as it may sound, our businesses.

With that in mind, here is a list of some things to do, to stop doing, and at the very least to consider as you gear up for 2019.

  • Register your copyrights. Please. I beg you. If you are a creative professional, stop making excuses and start doing this. As I mentioned last year, while there are services for this, I do not recommend using any of them because they might not be anything more than maybe adequate and quite possibly deficient. A well done registration can make a potential defendant in an infringement matter settle fast and for more money. A wonky one may be challenged by a wily defendant or will at least give one pause. Registration  is not that hard anyway, particularly for visual artists and even more so for still photographers.
    • Relatedly, stop thinking about the cost of registration as a reason not to register–first, it is a legitimate business cost and so you can write it off and, second, it is like insurance that you pay for once but off which you can make many claims (and for much more than the original cost). You will (almost assuredly) make more money in your business if you register your copyrights.
  • Pursue infringements. Not every case has to be worth 5-figures or more to get legal help. Some attorneys, like me, will take on small cases because they simply do add up. Let’s say you have small value infringements but a bunch of those– worth $2500 average settlement, just for sake of argument. 10 of those over the year is $25K. Now, let’s say your attorney gets 35% of that: you’re still pocketing over $16K.  How about 20 cases and more than $32K in your bank? Why not see of they are worth getting a lawyer to pursue (I review cases for free)?
    • Relatedly, consider using this tool instead of some much more costly “service” to find those infringements.
  • Make the time to make art for yourself. Whatever your medium/media, make making your own work, for you, a priority. Yes, you can probably use it later in your portfolio (because work made for yourself usually is your best work, if you let yourself really be free with it) but mostly, you need to give yourself total permission to explore, play, make utter crap, screw up, take risks, and re-find the joy in your work.
    • Relatedly, (re)learn how to fail. It is through failure that we achieve the abilities to be successful.
  • Get off social media, even for (most of) your marketing. The Terms of Use on pretty much all those services really do suck for creative pros, and all they do is make promises they can’t deliver.  And they are a huge time suck. And many of the companies have actively participated in bringing us the political hell we are now in. So stop facilitating their shitty behavior and quit using them. Besides, when it comes to your marketing, it’s virtually impossible to get seen by the right people by using social media, particularly if you are relying on trying to trend/go viral. Instead, do better targeting (make lists of the clients you want to work with!) and get back to the basics in your marketing plan. Back off the electronic crap and consider investing in really good print mailers. Also, try to interact in real life with potential clients. Make calls, go to industry events, volunteer with professional organizations of your potential clients–get out there in three dimensions!
    • Importantly, instead of posting everything on Facebook, Instagram, etc., keep your work on your own server/site and post links on social media, if you insist on using social media.
  • Use a watermark on visual art. Preferably, it should be in the form of a proper copyright notice (that is © year of first publication Name, for example: ©2018 Leslie Burns) but if not that then the copyright owner’s name (not your URL). For non-visual art, include the notice somehow like in the audio file for a podcast or both on the doc and in its metadata). I’ve already written about the wizbangery that is the CMI-related part of the DMCA–don’t ignore those protections!
    • Also, if you don’t know what metadata is or how to edit it for the digital forms of your works, learn now. Everything digital has metadata and that metadata can be crucial evidence in a lawsuit (it may also be CMI).
  • Make plans, including for death. Life changes, including the ultimate one, will affect your business and assets. That is basic reality. I lost my own father this year and you can trust me, having things properly organized and documented before the fact is a huge help in the grieving process. Take the time to look at where you are and what might happen, and plan accordingly (see my previous article on this, and this one on marriage, too).
  • Most of all, make time to be with those you love. Be fully present, and not just during the holidays. Also give to those who are worse off. Time and caring are things we can’t bank or buy; being present with those whom we love and who love us, and giving to others who are struggling somehow (and there are plenty of those these days) will do more for you than having another thing to own.

Here’s hoping 2019 is a happy, healthy, and prosperous year for us all.

Mojave and New Tools

I just switched to the newest Mac OS, Mojave, and although I’m not a techie, I want to encourage creatives to make the switch when they can[1], because it offers some good tools for evidence gathering.

First, the OS displays more metadata, and does so without having to get into Photoshop or the like. It’s all (well, lots) right there in the finder. This will be helpful in checking metadata in discovery-produced materials.

Sadly, some people will try to fake evidence[2]and the metadata can help prove it when that happens. It’s also a great way for you to prove up your ownership, creation dates, modifications, and copyright management information, too, especially if combined with the second goodie: video screenshots.

Shift-Command-5 enables you to record your screen while you, say, scroll down on the page of a website or click to get CMI info from a photograph. This is a great tool and one which will be really helpful in negotiating settlements. Imagine having an infringer claiming that the work never appeared on their site. Now, you can click to that site from somewhere else and do it while recording your screen so, boom, there it is!

I highly encourage anyone who is gathering evidence to use this video tool to make short videos showing the work in its infringing uses, live. Still screenshots are still needed (sorry, bad joke), of course, but the videos will be very persuasive.

_____________________

[1] I hear some creative apps aren’t Mojave-friendly yet.

[2] I had this happen a couple of years ago when a defendant asserted a doc had been made years before it actually had; I busted him with the metadata that showed the original doc was first created the night before it was produced. The case settled shortly after that.