CCB Cases Update

For those of you who have been following along, you know that I have filed a couple of Copyright Claims Board cases for my clients. That number is now 4. Of those, one settled shortly after filing and one was just filed in late December and hasn’t even been approved for service yet. That leaves two.

One of those had the respondents opt out just before it was too late for them to do so. Bummer and, frankly, dumb of them I think. My client can still file in federal district court and, if that happens, that is going to be much more expensive for the former-respondents-now-likely-defendants. This was a small use infringement and the CCB would have seemed perfect for the matter–well, settling before any of that would have been perfect, but outside of settlement a low-cost litigation alternative made sense for all the parties. Oh well, they had the right to opt out. Anyway, there is still a possibility that the matter could settle; but, if the other side doesn’t make a serious effort very soon, I think there will be a new case filed with the appropriate district court.

That leaves the last of my four cases. It’s actually the first case I filed with the CCB and it has now moved past the opt-out stage, meaning that my client has paid the second part of the filing fee (remember, the filing fee is paid in part at the time of filing then, if the case proceeds past the opt-out window, the rest is then due) and everyone has agreed to litigate in the CCB. We just recently received our scheduling order, laying out how the case will proceed. The next step is that the respondents must file their response to the claim, and that isn’t due for about 2 months. After that, we’ll have a pre-discovery conference (online) and then discovery opens.

People ask me what I think about the CCB and my first response now is always “It is slooooow.” The case that is moving forward was filed in late July. It is now January and the equivalent of an answer hasn’t been filed and isn’t due until early March. Discovery should close at the end of June, then written testimony will be due about 60 days after that. Then, if needed, there will be a hearing. In short, there will not be a decision in this case (assuming it doesn’t settle meanwhile) until well more than a year after filing.

Now, that isn’t long for traditional litigation, but I think everyone was expecting this process to be much faster. To be fair, it may speed up some as they work out the bugs but, for now, you must manage your speed expectations.

I’m hoping that in the end we’ll decide that the system worked within the “fast, good, cheap” paradigm: that is, we know it’s slow and cheap so, hopefully, it will be good.

Ho Ho Holy Crap, Where Did the Year Go?!?

Blue heeler unhappily wearing fabric antlers with a bell dangling off the right one.
Mongo no like antlers

The other day, on NPR, they ran a story about people who are studying how we (humans) experience time and one of the commonalities is that the pandemic affected that. For most people, it was a slowing of time–a day felt like many more than 24 hours, a week more like a month, et cetera. But as things have opened up, for many people time has started to fly.

I am definitely one of those people. In short, while 2020 and 2021 slogged, 2022 has flown by. I can’t believe the end-of-the-year holidays are upon us already.

My usual plans for the end of the year got bumped when my partner got Covid just days before Thanksgiving. Then, despite mask wearing and his isolation, he still gave it to me, forcing me to isolate for the week after Thanksgiving. Luckily, we both came through with only mild (me) to moderate (him) symptoms (thanks to the vaccines), but it has forced a change in our usual holiday activities.

Anyway, here we are. This year, I incorporated my law practice, got some new clients (thank you!), got threatened with a lawsuit for daring to send a demand letter to someone (ugh), started writing for the Architectural Photography Almanac, quit Twitter and moved to Mastodon, and handled many matters for my clients. It was, overall, a good year.

In thanks to all of you who permit me to do what I am passionate about and, as is my custom, I have made donations to a couple of charities rather than sending you tchotchkes as thank-you gifts. This year, I made a single donation to the NPPA’s fund and committed to a monthly contribution to the Souther Poverty Law Center. Both organizations do much good in a difficult world.

Thank you, all of you, my clients past, present, and future, for permitting me to serve you. I hope I may do so for some time to come.

Here’s to a wonderful 2023 for us all.

The Best Laid Plans

Robert Burns, the poet and not my father, wrote about how the best laid plans often go awry. So it is with my intention to write here more often. Obviously, that has not happened in the past month…ish. Apologies.

It also seems a fitting maxim for the CCB since I have now filed three cases there, the first being in late July, and none has been reviewed yet. This seems to be an issue. I was contacted by someone asking about my experiences and I mentioned that I hadn’t had any except for the filing of cases yet and he said he’s hearing that from others, too. So, I checked to see what’s happening with others’ cases. The results are both odd and frustrating.

First, some cases do seem to be proceeding. However, I’ve found cases from early July that haven’t been reviewed yet but others that were filed much later which have been reviewed. As I looked for what differentiated a reviewed one from a non-reviewed, the best I can figure is that if the case looks obviously flawed, it gets reviewed faster than one that looks proper on first glance. For example, there is a case against a federal governmental entity (you can’t sue the US in the CCB) and it got reviewed in less than a month and the CCB filed a notice that the claim had to be amended for it to proceed. Another was filed on July 7 then the claimant asked to amend the claim which was approved on August 3 and then that claim was found non-compliant on September 6. There are more than one that are just crazy with filings, so much so that the CCB issues an order to stop filing docs (like this one) but even then those cases got reviewed faster.

In short, there just doesn’t seem to be a clear system for what gets reviewed when, which is frustrating for the people waiting. It’s been 40 days since I filed the first one and if it gets reviewed and passes today, then I have to serve the respondent and then they have a good long time to opt out before anything else happens, like their answer. If I had filed in federal district court instead, my client would likely be close to if not actually starting discovery by now. If it was here in the Southern District of California, we’d likely have the ENE scheduled, even (an ENE is like a free mediation done by the court–lots of cases settle at or shortly after an ENE).

It would, in my opinion, be helpful if the CCB would make it clear how they decide what cases are reviewed when. I didn’t see anything in the handbook on this issue so I assumed it would be simple chronology; but it is clear that something else is afoot.

Filing at the CCB

I filed my first case in the CCB last week and thought I’d share a bit about the initial process. 

TL:dr It’s designed to be non-lawyer friendly but I’d still encourage using one anyway. 

First, don’t do anything without reading the handbook beforehand. It will make a huge difference in understanding how the forms work as well as the process as a whole. It will also give you the chance to see what things you might not understand fully, so that you can ask questions (preferably of a lawyer, not some rando on social media). For example, when you enter your certificate number, there is a very specific way to do that and it’s not “VA2-222-2222” like you would expect. Many of those little questions will be answered by the handbook.

Second, you may be tempted to look at several of the other cases to see how others are approaching the process. I did that and this can be very helpful to attorneys, but I’m afraid it may only make things worse for non-lawyers, as there is some crazy out there already. If you don’t know how filings work or what the elements are to your claim, that is, what you’ll need to plead and prove, this is where you can get into trouble. For example, there is one case where the claimant (plaintiff, in regular federal court) is essentially trying to sue the US Copyright Office. That’s not what the CCB is for and those filings will send you into a rabbit hole of bad examples. So, for most of you, I’d say skip this unless you want to run something by your attorney to see if it’s a good example to follow or maybe you have litigated in the past and know how the process usually works. 

Third, gather all your evidence and plan your case. You need to know what you need to prove (the elements of infringement claim) and what you have to get you there (evidence). Do you have any holes in your evidence? Now’s the time to try and fill those gaps. For example, you should (at least) have a copy of the original work and copies of the infringing uses and a copy of your registration certificate, if you have one (in the CCB, you have to have at least applied for registration to start a claim, but it’s better to have one in hand already)—all that is your evidence. 

You should also take the time to research your opponent, if you haven’t already. You’ll need contact information of some kind, at the very least. Gather all this information and organize it into some sort of cohesive story. In regular court, we attorneys do this in the form of the complaint we draft and file; here, there is no need for a formal complaint, but a document with the same information will be helpful. 

To create the document, write a list of how and when the work was made, when it was first published (published for the purposes of copyright law—not published in the normal English sense), when it was registered, when you discovered the infringement, how you did that, and then what steps you took after your discovery of it.

And if you haven’t already tried to negotiate a settlement before filing, now might be a good time to consider that first. It will look better if you try to get the matter worked out before filing and, if it works, then you won’t have to file! In the case of the filing I just did, we’ve been trying to get the respondent (defendant) to negotiate reasonably for almost a year before my client decided to take this step.

Anyway, back to the doc… in some sort of bullet point-like list, tell the story and, in it, point to the evidence you have. Think simple, declarative sentences. For example:

Claimant created the photograph on June 1, 2020.
Claimant first published the photograph on June 15, 2020, when she offered it for licensing on her website at https://www.photographer.com/art.jpg.
Claimant registered her copyright in the photograph, with others, receiving certificate No. VA2-222-2222 with an effective date of July 1, 2020. [Exhibit A: USCO certificate]

etc.

After you have all that done, you can start to fill out the claim forms. It will be much easier with the timeline and the evidence in order, but remember that you can always stop and save your progress, then come back to the forms later. You should, at the end of the claim, upload pdfs of the timeline and the evidence you have. Also, make the file names for these things clear, like “EX A: Cert va2-222-222.pdf.” You don’t need to do all that, but it will make reviewing things easier on the CCB attorney assigned to review the claim and hopefully get you to the service process faster. 

Pay your $40 (the other $60 is due later, if the defendant doesn’t opt-out) and then, like me now, you sit back and wait for the CCB attorney to review the claim to make sure it’s appropriate for the venue and meets the standards. Once that happens, you’ll be instructed about service. 

When that happens, I’ll let you know what the next steps are like. Stay tuned…

Look At My Shoes

Today is July 1 and it is the first day I’m doing business as Burns the Attorney, Inc. The old saying about the cobbler’s kid going unshod? Yeah, that was me. I should have done this a while ago but, still, now is better than later.

Forming an entity is a state-specific thing. The legal hoops you need to jump through vary from state to state. For example, I incorporated because I had no other choice. In California, you can’t have a solo-member LLC if your business is the law. You can, however, have a solo-member creative business LLC. Or incorporate. Go fig.

Anyway, there are many reasons to form an entity. The most obvious ones for a solo are to protect your personal assets and for tax benefits. For the second, you should talk to a CPA. A (non-tax) lawyer can give you some general tax advice, maybe, but a CPA will know best. Talk to one before you do anything about formation.

The other one, asset protection, is where talking to me (or any good business lawyer) makes sense. See, if you don’t form an entity and your business gets sued, well, you are your business legally-speaking as well as metaphorically. That means whatever assets you have in your personal world (like your house and car and retirement accounts) are available to pay a judgment against your business. Lawyers like me know what you need to do to form the wall between your business and your personal assets.

Arguably more importantly, we know what you need to keep doing to make sure that wall stays strong. See, if you don’t “maintain the formalities” (as the law likes to say), your wall can become paper thin, making piercing the corporate veil a piece of cake. Once the veil is pierced, your personal assets are back in play. Yikes!

In the creative world, creating an entity has extra considerations: your copyrights. As a sole proprietor (i.e., not an entity) you are the author of your creative work and the copyrights are owned by you. They will last until 70 years after your death. But, if you form an entity, you become an employee of that entity and the entity becomes the legal author of your work! Suddenly, the term of the copyrights change: 95 years from the year of the work’s first publication or 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever ends first. There are also inheritance issues then. There are legal ways to hold onto your copyrights in this situation–an attorney can help you with understanding which way is best for you and then making that a legal reality.

As for me, it is a relief to have taken this step. I sleep better at night knowing that my house (that I own with my boyfriend) isn’t endangered by my business. Also, it sure doesn’t hurt to know that I’m saving some money on my taxes, too.

So, while the way I serve my clients won’t change, starting today I’ll be serving them as the President/CEO of Burns the Attorney, Inc.
That’s some fine shoes.

Buddhist + Lawyer… Why?

As you may have guessed, I call myself a “Buddhist” and, obviously, I’m a lawyer. Why does that matter? Well, in short I think my Buddhist practice makes me a better lawyer.

I had my first formal lesson in meditation decades ago, back in my home state, when I went to a small dharma center near Ohio State (aka THE Ohio State University). There, a pudgy, kind, bald-headed, white man in saffron robes told me how to sit and taught me to pay attention to my breath. We sat for maybe 20 minutes all told and it was lovely. For lots of reasons, I never went back, but I did remember the instructions.

I started reading books about Buddhism, especially those written by the Dalai Lama and later Pema Chodron; but it took me many more years before I made meditation a regular practice. Luckily, I did so in the years before I started law school. Mindfulness, learning to be in the moment, and accepting what you cannot control—those tools alone helped me survive not only the pressures of law school, but the spectacular death of my marriage which occurred at the same time. 

Law school, much like the profession itself, is competitive by nature. Virtually all law students want to be the best and this is made tough since each course’s grades must fit the bell curve (meaning one top student only, per course). One’s grades and rankings matter for large (lucrative) law firm hiring later. I had no interest in joining such a firm, but I had to make grades for another reason: my full-ride scholarship depended on it. 

Some people take law school competition as a sort of blood sport: attack and destroy the others so you end up on top. Cheating, stealing/hiding research materials, refusing to help other students who miss a class for illness or something—those behaviors run rampant in some schools. Luckily, my law school wanted all the students to do well and did what it could to make that happen, mostly very successfully. My classmates were generally kind, shared information and class notes, and were supportive of each other. We competed, but respectfully. Rising tide lifting all boats, as it were.

Still, I wanted and needed to do well. Buddhism taught me that I had no control over what my fellow students did but only over what I did. Further, I had the power to reduce my own suffering when things did not go well by not reacting mindlessly. These ideas were liberating. It meant it didn’t matter if Ashley studied until 2am every night while I was asleep by 8:30pm (to get 8 hours sleep), or that Christina’s outline for Crim was 5 times as long as mine—I could only do my own work, my own way, and try to be as prepared for classes and exams as I could be. I also couldn’t control the professors, so when I was told by a (female!) legal writing professor that I came off as too masculine in my oral argument assignment and (I believe) got downgraded for it, I didn’t get in her face but instead shrugged it off and make sure I did better on some other part of the graded materials; because my goal was to get a good grade, not make her like me or my style.

Finally, Buddhism taught me about impermanence: nothing is solid and permanent, everything is constantly changing; so, even if something is really good, it won’t last; but neither will the really bad thing. That meant I could celebrate successes without trying to hold onto them and that I could suffer less through the bad things, knowing they wouldn’t last. I loved it every time I made the Dean’s List and I hated it when my marriage blew up, but both came and went.

Fast forward to my actual practice of law, now: I use my Buddhist practice every day in it (and yes, notice that we call each a practice). Most of my law practice involves negotiating with infringers or their attorneys (or insurance people). They want to pay as little as possible, I want to get my clients as much as I can, reasonably. Unfortunately, sometimes some people call me names and I have even been threatened with rape and death, just for standing up for creators’ rights. I know those names and threats aren’t actually about me—those are about the other person feeling out of control and trying to reassert it through bullying and fear. My Buddhist practice lets me be mindful enough to remember that none of this discussion with the nasty infringer or his rude lawyer is about me, it’s about my client’s case, so who cares if they call me names? I just stay on the actual topic, the law and the facts of the case, and try to work to a reasonable solution. Those people can sling all the monkey poo they want at me—I’m poo-proof—because I am focused on my client’s best interests, not my ego/feelings. This means I am less distracted/-able and so some lawyer’s other flashy technique will simply fail to move me off my point of focus: my client’s case.

Buddhism taught me that it is better to slow down and do less, better, than to do lots only okay. For example, I don’t take every case that is brought to me or make promises about the huge settlements/awards I will get my clients, not just because that behavior isn’t technically ethical but more because it is just wrong. Some cases should not be pursued because they are bad cases. No amount of bravado is going to save a client from paying attorney’s fees to the other side when the lawyer lies about the registration status, for example, and gets caught by the court. Sure, maybe trying that would work sometimes to get a defendant to pay up out of fear, before the status is discovered, but that is a horrible misuse of the law. I don’t want clients who think that is okay. You shouldn’t work with an attorney who thinks it is.

I don’t use generic templates for the filings I draft, because I draft with intention, including arguing the specific case’s facts and the appropriate law. Same with emails and letters to infringers and their counsels. This process is slower and as a result I probably do not make as much money as others might who have more clients and cases, but I know I’ve done my research and made the best arguments possible for each client in each document I write.

Besides, I do just fine, thank you very much. I am proud that many of my clients have been clients for many years. This wouldn’t happen if they weren’t happy with my work and its results for them. I’m always happy for new clients and cases (please do tell your friends about me), but I respect the honor of having long-time clients. I blame my Buddhist practice for that. 😉

Although I am tenacious, I am not what some people call a “bulldog” kind of lawyer. All bluster and ego makes famous (and often infamous) lawyers, but it doesn’t make them good ones. Good lawyers work with deep respect for the truth and logic, and in the service of their clients, not for fame; Buddhism respects rational logic, the truth, and wants to be of benefit of others.
Interesting how similar those are.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that any of you start studying Buddhism—what you do spiritually is totally your own business. But after reading this, now you understand why I talk about my Buddhism and its relationship to my work: I think it makes me a better lawyer for my clients.

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.  

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 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.

Bar-iversary Thoughts

Tomorrow is my Bar-iversary; that is, it’s the anniversary of my admittance to the California Bar. The day I took my oaths (plural—my school had its own extra one) and simultaneously was admitted to the Southern and Central Federal Districts for the state of California. The day I completed my dream of becoming a lawyer. 

And the day I had to start really being one.
Yikes!

Actually, it hasn’t been anything like I feared. I didn’t have to join some big firm and sell my soul doing god-only-knows-what law to pay my rent, but rather got to practice exactly the law I wanted to right off. I’ll never be able to thank my mentor, Carolyn Wright, enough for that. Even better, I got to represent wonderful creative clients, several of whom are still clients and, now, real friends. 

I like to think that I was a good lawyer right out of the gate, and it’s likely I was, but the reality is that I am a better lawyer now than I was then. No surprise—experience is a great teacher (so is my mentor).

My only regret is that I haven’t had the time to do the scholarly work I would like. Of course, writing papers doesn’t pay and I’m such a research geek that if I get started on that path, I’m going to starve (ha!). Still, I do keep up on the law both on a practical as well as a theoretical level, although more weighted to the first as of late. 

Relatedly, litigation is a time suck. 

Anyway, every year at this time I look back on that moment when I raised my right hand and swore to support the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of California and to be the best lawyer I could be. I think about what a bright-line marker it was in my life and what an achievement it was personally. Moreover, I think about the time since then, being in practice and actually lawyering. As a lawyer, since taking that oath, my achievements have been in the service of my clients, and most happily so. This is what lawyering should be, in my opinion: a service profession. It is definitely how I run my practice and how I intend to lawyer, for as long as I hold the license.

Thank you to each of you who have trusted me with your legal needs over the years. You have given me the career I always wanted and I am honored to serve you. Hopefully I will get to do so for many years to come.