I read with great interest an article on the web site "webcopyplus" - Legal Lesson Learned: Copywriter Pays $4,000 for $10 Photo - where the website admits to stealing a photograph "...frankly, we screwed up." and then tells the tale of one of their copywriters who was "were under the impression that images on the Web without any copyright notices were “public domain” and therefore free to use. Naive? Yes."
The story reads like part admission of guilt, part "...we got busted and learned a lesson, but everyone does it..."
What lessons should photographers take away from this?
First - register your copyright. They said that if the lawyer had contacted the design firm instead of the client, they had some options "Had the lawyer engaged Webcopyplus, in which case our client wouldn’t be caught in the middle, we would have had options: ignore the letter; say, “Go ahead, sue us”; or respond, “$1,925 is our final offer,” which there’s a chance they’d accept." When their request for a copy of the registration certificate was not provided, they were able to go to the Copyright office's website, "and by entering a registration number at the U.S. Copyright Office’s website (www.copyright.gov), we were able to confirm the image was copyright registered and the lawyer’s client was the rightful owner." Now, they are taking the demand seriously.
Second - (and I learned this from singer/songwriter Jon Sebastian) WHENEVER you learn about someone infringing upon your copyright, you should pursue it with great vigilance. By doing this, not only can you generate revenue, but you teach the greater community of users of photography that if they steal, they run the risk of paying the price.
Third - Don't try to go it alone. Get a lawyer. When you have a lawyer, people realize you're serious. The first correspondence from the lawyer to the infringer included the sentence "“Cease and desist demand and offer to settle copyright infringement claim, and digital millennium copyright act claim, subject to Rule 408, Federal Rules of Evidence.” according to the infringer. This is a critical sentence, because the letter made a demand for money, and if that sentence was not in there, the amount that the lawyer was asking for on behalf of the photographer to settle the claim would be something that could be introduced into evidence during a trial, and limit the amount the photographer could actually win during a trial.
Fourth - Engage the infringing entity - in this case, while the infringers were both the design firm and the company, going after the ongoing infringer - the company, you not only will often get a better response from their lawyers, but the company likely also carries insurance to cover lawsuit/settlement losses, and they will likely pursue reimbursement from the design firm. Many design firms don't have these protections, nor lawyers on retainer, and are likely to try to sweep these things under the rug. In this case, the infringement gave a black eye to the design firm in the mind of their client, so there was no sweeping under the rug! They noted - "It was a tough pill to swallow, but we were the ones who messed up, and salvaging the client relationship was priority."
The design firm suggests, regarding the settlement amount "We felt — and photographers we spoke to agreed — the proposed settlement amount was excessive." Well, I'm not sure whom they spoke to, but $4,000 is a very small settlement amount, so whomever they spoke to that represented themselves as photographers must really not understand the value of the photographs they produce - perhaps it was they who also advised a valuation of $10 - "Why would copywriters at Webcopyplus pay $4,000 for a digital photo that retails for about $10?"
One really bad thought that was posited was "...Based on recent discussions, even after we shared our story, some continue to suggest copyright laws are blurry, and insist if you ever run into conflict and get a threatening letter, you can simply delete the image and toss the document in the trash (one designer even labeled it “delete and toss”)." BAD IDEA. They then acknowledge that "While this might work with some individuals and organizations, particularly if they’re in a different province, state or country, which might make legal costs prohibitive, be aware: you could end up in a lengthy and costly court battle. For those who insist, “It won’t happen to me,” mind the fact that this beach photo was the only one we’ve ever grabbed from the Web for a client’s website. And it cost us almost $4,000. Consequently, we urge others to recognize and yield to a simple fact: If it’s on the Internet and others wrote or created it, do not use it without their permission."
While it's dubious to believe "...this beach photo was the only one we’ve ever grabbed from the Web for a client’s website..." in the end, now, there's one less company out there who is under the misguided thought that if it's on the internet, they are "...under the impression that images on the Web without any copyright notices were “public domain” and therefore free to use." and who now professes "...We apologize, and it won’t happen again."
(Disclaimer - I am not a lawyer, nor is this specific legal advice, but rather general information for your review and consideration.)
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