CMI and the DMCA

As a creative professional, you have a gazillion acronyms and abbreviations in your vocabulary. Here’s another one you should know: CMI.

CMI stands for Copyright Management Information and, generally speaking, it is data that identifies the copyright owner of a work. For example, on the photo above you’ll see my watermark in the form of a copyright notice in the lower right. That watermark is CMI.

In my opinion, you should always have visible CMI on any visual art (or, frankly, any creative work) you put out into the world. Why? Easy, under the DMCA (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, another acronym for your vocab), CMI is protected. CMI functions as identification that the work is yours and, if your work is infringed and the CMI is removed or altered without your authority, you have extra tools to wield.

Specifically, if your work is infringed and the CMI is removed or altered, the infringer has committed at least one (and possibly two) violations of Section 1202 of the DMCA. Each violation carries statutory damages of not less than $2,500 and not more than $25,000, and the prevailing party may get its attorney’s fees and costs too. Oh, and the work doesn’t have to be registered for you to be eligible for those damages (but register your work, m’kay)!

Also, removal of visible CMI is strong evidence that an infringement is willful. If your work is timely registered (and, please, register all your work), willfulness increases the maximum statutory damages from $30,000 to $150,000. Even if you are unlikely to get the maximum (and, here on planet reality, you are unlikely to get the maximum in most cases), willfulness will be a factor in setting the statutory damages higher overall. So you really should have visible CMI on your work.

Best practice is to use a proper copyright notice like mine (although it doesn’t have to be that size–just visible and readable). A proper notice is the © (or the word “copyright”) and the year of first publication of the work (note that is not the year of creation, unless they are the same of course) and the copyright owner’s name (not your url, not your biz name unless your biz owns the work as opposed to you, personally). Note that you don’t have to have registered your work to use the symbol (unlike for trademarks where you can only use ® for registered trademarks).

Using a proper copyright notice kind of kills two birds with one stone (a post for a different day) so I encourage doing that. Still, any visible watermark that identifies the owner of the work will very likely count as CMI, so you can use something other than the notice, if you insist (but I will give you the squinky eye for that).

What is important is that the watermark must identify the owner for it to count as CMI. You can’t just put anything on there and have it count. Today, I saw a tweet by Image Rights that suggested putting its”protected by Image Rights” watermark on works to “help protect” the work. While maybe using that might discourage someone from using the work, that watermark will not count as CMI, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to use it. I mean, you could, but then you’d also have your own CMI watermark on the work as well. With all that on a work, it’s going to get pretty crowded and likely lose whatever marketing value displaying the work may generate.

For what it’s worth, your own watermark also functions for marketing purposes. Credit lines (while also CMI if posted adjacent to the work, and so its removal is a violation) don’t usually travel with a work when it gets ripped off or legitimately shared on sites like Facebook.

Finally, when you discover an infringement and realize that you haven’t properly, timely registered the work, the DMCA violation(s) may make the case something that an attorney would be willing to take on a contingency fee basis, since the potential recovery is more than just actual damages. If for no other reason than that, I suggest artists should make sure to use CMI-proper watermarks!

A Few Don’ts

I have posted often (especially on the old BAP Super Premium blog) about things you should do, like registering your copyrights. Today, though, I think it’s time for some don’ts. Most of these are things that people seem to think are really good ideas but, when the rubber hits the road, they aren’t. Some of them can be downright dangerous. Some of these are legal-related, and some are just general business advice. So, here’s my list of 10.

Please, don’t:

  1. Before you actually hire an attorney, and I mean have a written agreement covering that particular matter (and paying a retainer, if required), cc the lawyer-you-think-may-be-your-lawyer on your email to some potential opposition. This sucks for the attorney on multiple levels, including being blindsided (never good) and pissing off the attorney’s malpractice insurance provider. Most of all, and I’m sure you don’t realize it, but you are using that lawyer’s professional reputation without her/his permission or payment! You know how you don’t like having your work ripped off? Same for us. You have, in a way, forced the attorney to represent you without that person’s permission. It’s just all kinds of bad.
  2. In any email–whether you cc’ed the attorney (who is not yet actually your attorney on that matter) or not–tell the potential bad guy “My lawyer will make you pay $X” or “My lawyer says you will owe me $150,000!” or even “If you don’t pay me $X now, you will regret it! My lawyer will rip you a new one” and the like. Ugh, even typing that gives me the willies. Don’t put words into a lawyer’s mouth; you are pretty much sure to get the law wrong and more often than not, when I’ve had potential clients do that, they didn’t even have a good case (register your copyrights, already). The threats end up hurting you. Later, when you do hire a lawyer, you will have dug a bigger hole for her/him to work out of and, it’s possible, that you could have traipsed into the realm of extortion. So very not good.
  3. Make unreasonable demands and then get pissy when they aren’t met. If you contact someone who has potentially breached a contract or infringed (or whatever), giving them an arbitrary 24 hours (ish) to fix it/pay up just makes you into the jerk. Real life sometimes takes time. Give people time to do the right thing. Sometimes they have to get their heads out of their butts first and that doesn’t always happen overnight. Same goes for money demands–don’t ask for $20,000 when a photo is used (without a license) on a personal blog–you won’t get it and now you just look like a bully.
  4. Generally, act like an ass.You get more flies with honey is a good old saying for a reason: it works. Sure, it’s not 100% effective, but I think it works much better than being a jerk. If you make it easy for someone who’s done you a wrong to make it right, without humiliating him/her or beating him/her up (verbally, I mean, please tell me you don’t hit anyone), you are much more likely to achieve your goal. When someone gets caught doing something wrong, it can be embarrassing and humans often react defensively (read: like idiots) when embarrassed. Don’t rub the person’s nose in it–rise above the nasty gut-reaction s/he may initially respond withand talk instead about how “we” can “make it right.” Look for solutions, don’t make more problems.
  5. Be greedy. Let’s say you want to get $5000 from a potential infringer (and, yes, you should always have a number in mind that you would be perfectly satisfied with from the get-go; not a pie-in-the-sky number but one that you would happily take). You’re going to ask for more than that as an opening offer–that is expected. Whenever the other side agrees to pay $5000 (or if it offers more), take the deal–you got what you wanted. You don’t have to push for even more. It isn’t about getting all you can, it’s about getting enoughSatisfaction doesn’t mean “all you can squeeze out of the bastard.” This is also true for project estimates and all negotiations in your business.
  6. Beat up Betty for what Bob did. By that I mean, it’s important to take each matter on its own merits and each potential person on hers/his. Don’t be a chump, but if Bob said he was poor and couldn’t pay a dime and it turns out he owns a mansion and a yacht, don’t expect that Betty is lying when she says she’s poor. Give each person a chance to prove her/his side of the case. Sometimes it really is a hacking or someone really is on foodstamps. I’ve found that when someone legitimately has extenuating circumstances, s/he usually is more than willing to provide some proof.
  7. Try to sound like a lawyer when someone does you wrong. You’re not one and mostly you end up sounding like you’re trying too hard and being unnecessarily nasty. You can be appropriately assertive (and be assertive, not aggressive) in your own voice and without using $20 words. See #4 above, too.
  8. Refuse to have a plan. There are a bunch of plans you should have as a businessperson. You need to have a business plan, a marketing plan, and an estate plan, just to name three. None of these need to be complex, but you do need to have an idea of where you are (A) and where you want to be (B) to be able to get from A to B. When you have a work project–be that a photoshoot or a series of illustrations for the New York Times Magazine–you plan out what you need to do to accomplish that project. Do the same for your business as a whole. As for the estate plan, well, don’t be Prince.
  9. Expect to learn the law from a creative professional (or, worse, the interwebs). Okay, I know this is going to ruffle some feathers, but creative professionals, even those who have been in lawsuits often or who have registered a gazillion copyrights*, are not lawyers and do not know the law the way a lawyer does. I swear I’m not tooting my own horn here–I can’t do what a great photographer can do even though I’ve worked with them since the 1990s. It’s just not the same as devoting yourself to the intensive study and practice for years and years. Anyway, you wouldn’t go to a graphic designer for medical advice, right? Why then do you spend good money to have one teach you about business law or copyrights? There is a reason we lawyers have to be licensed, just like doctors–when we get things wrong, it can really be life or death in some cases (there is a reason I don’t do criminal law) or at least economic life or death in others.
  10. Get angry and take things personally. This one is huge. In business (and law) the ego gets in the way too often. When people do things that negatively affect you–be that infringe on your work or try to get you to agree to work for half your normal rate, whatever–it really isn’t about you, it’s about them. Maybe the art buyer is getting yelled at and squeezed by an impossible client or the infringer is oblivious to copyright, who knows what is going on in their heads. I can tell you that almost always what is not going on is “I want to screw over this artist.” Even when the other side is acting like total jerks, it’s still about them. For example, I’ve had cases where infringers have called me horrible names; what the infringers were really trying to do was make the problem go away– each knew it was caught and was embarrassed so it lashed out in anger. Taking that anger personally would have been wasted energy. Instead, I think it’s better to approach it more dispassionately like “I understand you’re upset; there is a problem here and now we need to find a way to fix it” and then start trying to think of solutions. Your goal is to find a solution that works for you so keep your focus there.

_______

*I can tell you from personal experience that more than a few creative pros who think they know how to register their work have done it wrong. So wrong, in fact, that some of their registrations could be broken by defendants.

Before Means Before

Y’all are probably sick of hearing me nag about registering your work as soon as possible, but here is a great example of why I do that. In a recent opinion the court wrote (emphasis added by me):

Because Compass did not register its copyright until February 17, 2012 one day after the alleged infringement commenced the court finds as a matter of law that Compass is not entitled to an award of statutory damages or attorneys fees.

Ouch. That really sucks.

Remember that yourregistration has to be before the infringement actually began (or, in the case of published work, within 3 calendar months of first publication), not just before you discover the infringement, for you to be able to get statutory damages or attorneys’ fees. Clearly the courts are willing to say “One day too late, tough.”

Timing Matters

Today, I learned about two cases which each serves to highlight errors creatives are prone to make when it comes to their registrations.

The first was a case (opinion here, if you want to bother reading it) from Massachusetts, where the plaintiff was granted summary judgement on its claim of copyright infringement but, because it registered the work after the infringement started, it can’t get statutory damages.

The rule about no statutory damages available unless the work’s copyright is registered before the infringement is one of the few clear ones in copyright law. You can’t skirt it and, besides a very limited “safe harbor” period to register published work within three calendar months of its first publication, there are no exceptions. So, register your work as soon as you can, to make statutory damages (and attorneys’ fees) available as soon as possible.

The second case makes me twitchy because I know some photographers (especially) teach this wrongly. In that case, the plaintiff registered a pile of works as unpublished when it knew that some of them were published. Tonya Gisselberg of Seattle Copyright Watch explains it well on her blog and links to the opinion, but the short version is that a defendant may be able to void your registration for any of the knowingly published work (and remember that published in copyright law isn’t published like most people think).

I have been in workshops where pro photographers have advised “register everything as unpublished because that is cheaper and easier” but, if you aren’t careful to follow the rules, you could not only be wasting your time and money in the registration process, it is conceivable that a defendant who successfully breaks your registration could be awarded its attorneys’ fees. Yikes! You definitely do not want that to happen.

The lesson here is much like Star Trek’s matter/anti-matter, rule: do not mix.

Doing Your Part

In the very recent past I’ve had more than a couple of photographers contact me about possible infringement situations. That’s great… it’s what I do. My first question, as always, is “Is the image’s copyright registered?” For almost every one of those photographers, the answer has been “no.”

Sigh. That is so frustrating. It just kills me to have to tell someone that they are unlikely to be able to get much of anything if they go after the infringer; but, if the image’s copyright isn’t registered, that’s the likely scenario.

At the most basic level, your demand letter (assuming you start there) isn’t going to have as much punch if there is no registration. Why? Because you can’t get statutory damages for the infringement, nor can you get attorneys’ fees or costs, so the demand letter will be weaker because it will lack those sticks.

Also, the power of citing the registration number is a helpful factor in your opening position, before negotiations get under way. Without it, you have a very weak negotiation starting point which, combined with the unlikeliness of a good size settlement, isn’t going to help you. Frankly, it’s not likely you’re going to find an attorney willing to bother with your case unless you are willing to pay the lawyer’s time. A time-based arrangement with an attorney will probably eat up any money you might get from the infringement pretty quickly so you’re not going to want to take that path.

Also, if you ever want to file a case, well, you’re going to have to register the copyright before you can do that anyway. No registration at all means the door to the courthouse is essentially locked for you. While there are related claims that may get you in (and I am not going to try to start explaining that in this post), the infringement won’t do it unless you register the copyright before filing your complaint. You just have to do it–that’s your part in this.

Look, every attorney goes through at least 4 years of undergrad plus 3 years of law school plus taking at least one excruciating Bar exam. Some of us have a lot more education than that, plus experience (for example, I’ve been working in commercial photography since the last century and I did PhD coursework). There is also the constant learning on top of that to keep up with the Law. We (lawyers in general) do our part to try and be the best prepared advocates for our clients. In the case of those of us who do copyright-related work, especially for artists and not the big corporations, we’re in it for the love of art, artists, and the Law and we want to help. But we need your help to help you.

If you do nothing else, please register the copyrights to all your work. Start today and do it for everything you make going forward. Over time, you can register your older work, but at least add registration to your workflow today. Infringements happen all the time and for us to be able to really help you, you have to do your part. Register.