Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Copywriting v. Registering a Copyright

Copywriting is what people in advertising do. Registering a copyright is what creators do to establish certain valuable remedies (including damages) for the infringement of their work.

I'd like to clarify this, because it is a constant source of misspeak when I give lectures or appear on panels. A copyright subsists from the moment a work is put in some permanent form in which it can be seen, read, perceived or otherwise experienced by others. With a photograph, either digital or analog, that moment arguably is at the point when the shutter is released. There is still a difference between a published work and an unpublished work, but, make no mistake, putting it up on a website is publishing these days.

There are specific forms for the registration of copyrights, depending on the form of literary, visual, or performance art to be registered. The Copyright Office has an excellent website to guide a novice registrant and provide the appropriate forms needed. Check it out here.

Photographers generally use form VA for registering physical copies or use an electronic registration process, which I understand is fairly slow and frustratingly old technology. My only experience with it found it so and I just finished reading comments gathered by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) for submission to the Copyright Office on its proposals for raising registration fees which support this impression.

ASMP has long been the leading organization working on behalf of photographers' rights. I spent two years on the ASMP national board of directors and chaired the Rights Committee after Richard Weisgrau, the long-time chair, left the board. ASMP has forged an excellent working relationship with the Copyright Office and members of Congress, and has earned a place at the table when copyright law is considered. Naturally, it has stepped up to present the concerns of photographers who face steep increases in registration fees if the new schedule goes into effect.

Photographers register more discrete works at one time than any other creators, and digital photography has increased this output. Protecting remedies to infringement by registering work in a timely fashion can be expensive, even with group registration. (As an aside, this is an issue that goes back to wet-plates, according to some old cases I have read.)

Because photographers need to distinguish between unpublished and published works when registering copyrights, I have recommended to clients that they set up a workflow that permits them to register all unpublished work created within a 60 day period and separately register all worked published within a 60 day period. They can be the same periods of time, but they must be registered separately.

The 60 day period is because a copyright registration that is made within 90 days of creation or first publication gives remedies for any infringement that occurs within that window prior to the actual day the  registration is made. 60 days gives the photographer a pretty good window to catch an early infringement.

Note: in the U.S. a copyright registration is necessary to gain access to the courthouse door. It is not necessary (but certainly helps) to establish copyright ownership. If a creator has not registered a work within the appropriate window, the creator cannot ask for statutory damages (currently as much as $150,000 per intentional infringement) or for attorneys' fees (which is usually the key to an attorney's services in an infringement.) More importantly, a timely registration is what stands between a quick settlement and expensive litigation which might not be worth the trouble if  "actual" (what a photographer might have charged for a licensing fee if asked in advance) rather than "statutory" damages are what will be the basis of determining loss.

A creator who fails to register copyrights in a timely manner will still have to register in order to gain access to the Federal Courts, which, currently, are the only courts of jurisdiction for infringement actions. Most of the time, if case is about the usage of a licensed image and the use made is greater than that of the contract, that case will end up in Federal Court rather than in a state court because a defendant will ask for removal with the hope the plaintiff hasn't made the appropriate registration. It is best to be ready for Federal Court at the onset. I have filed complaints where the client was in the process of getting their copyrights registered, which is disclosed in the papers filed. Some courts will permit matters to move forward, allowing the complaint to be amended when the certificate of registration is available, but this might not always be the case. There is a special form which must accompany a copyright complaint, which, I recall, asks for registration numbers.

At the last talk I did, the moderator asked for ways to protect works of authorship. Two offered were to register with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) or to send a copy of the work to yourself through the mail.

Neither of these methods register a copyright and neither will get you statutory damages or attorneys' fees. The WGA registration, which is actually touted as a way to protect ideas (copyright does not protect ideas, only expressions of ideas), is used to help establish first-in-time scripts or elements of screenplays. A timely copyright registration for a screenplay (make it before sending it out to readers) will do that as well, plus preserve those lovely remedies of statutory damages and attorneys' fees.

The other method, of mailing a copy of the work to yourself and putting it unopened in a drawer, is sometimes called "poor man's copyright." IT IS A WASTE OF TIME. I'm not even sure it was effective for anything under the 1909 Act, but it is totally ineffective under the 1976 Copyright Act. The 1976 Act eliminated all state-level copyright protection, established a term of copyright protection based on the life of the author (while a different time frame was established for "works made for hire"), and established the Federal Courts as the only venue to hear claims of copyright infringement.

One final note, in the not-so-distant past, creators relied on the copyright registration of a magazine or book to protect their individual contributions therein. Unless you are the only author of the book or magazine (unlikely), you must register the copyrights for your contributions separately to preserve your rights. If you are the only author of a book, you should, by contract, make sure that the copyright registration will be made on your behalf, in your name, by the publisher. If you make a contribution to a book which has works by a number of people in it, make sure your reserve your copyright rights in your contract with the publisher and make your own registration of the contributed works. If you provide work to a magazine, make sure you register your contributions as published works. If you were able to register your contributions as unpublished works originally, registering them again when they are published is a good business practice (though not entirely necessary.)


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thoughts on Representation

I recently accepted an invitation to appear on a panel dealing with copyright and trademark issues for a local writers' organization. Four of the five panelists were lawyers, two of whom also said they were agents for writers. I think there is an inherent conflict of interest in that designation.

As a lawyer, I know my duty is to my client. I have to perform due diligence to make sure I do not have a conflict in representing an old client when I take on a new client. Disclosures must be made and releases sometimes need to be signed.

 An agent can, and frequently does, represent a number of clients who are looking for work (or contracts, in the case of a prose writer) in the same places. These clients are, in essence, competing against each other. 

An agent, by definition, is supposed to be working on behalf of his or her principal and, in law school, I thought I was taught there were fiduciary duties involved in that relationship. Now, I am not so sure agents see it that way. While I think that the agent does have a fiduciary duty to the writer or photographer or artist he or she represents, I have heard too many stories of creators whose agents failed to send on royalty payments or who inserted clauses into contracts which benefited the agent but which were no benefit to the creator. A lawyer should bring independent eyes to a contract review, and know that duty lies not to him or her self, but to the client.

Back in the day when I was a full-time photographer (and never had an agent except for stock work which was a 50/50 split), photographers' agents might represent non-competing photographers, such as a fashion photographer and an architectural photographer.  But many agents worked exclusively with a single photographer, earning a commission on the order of 35%. (To be fair, a lot of the time a photographer's agent was often the photographer's spouse and I always thought that having an agent taking 35% was like being married to someone without the benefits.)

Book agents, by comparison, worked with many writers and took a commission of 10% (now the usual fee is 15%.)  Legitimate television and film agents, because they are in the business of "procuring employment" are still limited by law in California to 10%, but large agencies can circumvent this by "packaging" a project, where they are allow to commission at a higher rate against the project, but cannot then take a commission against individual talents.

Here in Hollywood, there are people called "managers" who are unregulated as to what they do and how much money they can charge for commissions. They are not supposed to be "procuring employment" but many of them do just that. They also charge 15% and up for what they do.

I've heard tales of people who call themselves "agents" and then change the designation to "manager" or, worse, say they are "producers" and really screw over writers who are hoping to make an impact in Hollywood. I call them barnacles, a term of art I learned at some MCLE program or another. You do not get to change your title mid-stream. You do not get to attach yourself to a project and kill it for your principal if you don't get what you want for yourself.

Lawyers are highly regulated and licensed. Agents who "procure employment" for talent are also regulated and licensed. Managers have fought tooth and nail to avoid any kind of licensing or regulation. Literary agents, meaning those who represent prose writers, and artists' agents do not appear to be licensed beyond having a business license wherever they set up shop, although I know that there is are some trade associations for them. I've known some good and honorable agents. I've also been told tales of horrible agents. And my friends Victoria Strauss and Ann Crispin have spent decades watching and reporting on the scammers out there, who steal money and dreams from aspiring writers. (Check out Writer Beware to see the good work they do.)

There is something about a lawyer claiming simultaneously to be an agent that makes me very uncomfortable. I've been in the position of negotiating (and getting) points in a contract that the agent for our mutual client refused to take up because it might affect some other deal they had in the works. This is not a good thing, and if the lawyer and agent were the same person, it could lead to a malpractice claim down the line. Malpractice is my worst nightmare.

So, if you are in the market for a lawyer or an agent or even a manager, don't look for one in the phone book. Do some investigating before you sign any agreement with any representation. Use the Internet. Ask for references. Talk to some of their other clients. Remember, it's likely to be a relationship like a marriage without the benefits.