So what’s is Copyright and how may it affect you if you want to truly protect your art and your rights as an artist? The definition is simple. Just like the word says, it is the right to copy something. In this case we are referring to forms of art including photography. If you have not formally protected your work, you may later regret not doing so. Most artists and photographers know that their work is automatically copyright protected the moment they created it. But is this automatic protection enough?
Just yesterday I was at the park with my 4 year old and took a 10 second video of her going down a slide. Once I got the appropriate signed waivers from parents of other kids’ parents in the park who were in the background of the video I got on the phone with my Intellectual Property Attorney to let him know what I did. We followed up this morning with an hour long conference call between him and his partners discussing the risks and benefits of sharing my video. At my instance he came up with 3 minutes of text and a recorded statement for me to insert at the beginning of the video. It did cost me about $4500 in legal fees but boy did I feel much better, especially since I planned to share this with my parents and who knows what shady relatives they will share it with. Yes, I know $4500 may be a little steep but really it was not, considering he also threw in a disclaimer that I embedded as a caption into a copyright watermarked image that I had taken with my phone out at the park of her and smiling from a top of the slide. I slept well after I posted it on Facebook but this morning I realized there was a sign of a 7-Eleven visible in the background so I ended up deleting it and am working on Photoshopping that out just in a new version of the photo.
Okay I made up this story but it does bring up some points about copyright.
I have actually had photographers and a few artists tell me they won’t post their work online for for fear someone will steal their images. Is this fear well founded? I think it does have some validity since it is impossible to fully protect your work from digital image thieves and even though there are things you can do to make it less likely none are foolproof. While I generally encourage artists looking for better exposure to do everything they can to get their work in front of eyeballs, it’s a decision they have to make: weighing the option of better visibility versus the possibility of someone stealing their work.
I have had some firsthand experience myself as the so called victim. And it was from a most unexpected perpetrator. It was so blatant I actually found it somewhat humorous and flattering. As a matter of fact I did not even contact them because I wanted to show friends and family how blatant the copyright violation was.
A few years after FinerWorks was founded I created a graphic in Photoshop that I posted on the FinerWorks website. Back then we printed exclusively on canvas and the photo was of some canvas prints that I had made to show off our canvas printing service. I guess it was a few years after that I stumbled across a competing canvas printing service. Prominently displayed on their front page was my web graphic! I have never made it a practice to register graphics we use for promotional purposes so outside of sending them a cease and desist email there was not much I could do. But even had I done so and they had ignored me I don’t think I could have done a whole lot more. Trying to recoup any loss would not have been worth the cost or effort.
If you post your work on a third party website be aware the terms may be somewhat vague as to usage rights. I know this is primarily to protect the site from claims of copyright violation that that they may have unknowingly facilitated but it also may be self serving for them. Because of the vagueness you find in the terms of services, some artists won’t post their work on third party sites such as Flickr or Facebook. Their concern stems from the concern within terms of service that the person posting the image looses or grant’s copyright permission. Some of the statements that Facebook has made may seem a little vague but part of the main reason for this is Facebook is trying to protect themselves. Whether that is enough to assuage any fears of them using your work without remuneration is something you need to decide.
I am far from a legal expert on this but perhaps the life blood of Facebook is that whole sharing thing. But what is clear is that you do not forfeit your ownership rights to the images you post. Or do you? Well maybe it is not so clear. Places like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook now) do make it vague enough and they can change their terms on the fly. As one law office in New York that specializes in Internet Law posts on their website, you or your Intellectual Property Attorney should read the fine print and discuss this each time you plan to post a photo on one of these services. Well duh..Don’t most people do that?
Okay, all kidding and sarcasm aside, copyright concerns, whether you post on Facebook or your personal website, are valid. I have also met photographers who have been victims of copyright infringement just like me. This has mostly been they have found their images posted on other sites. And just like me there was not a whole lot they could really do outside of sending the website a ceases and desist letter unless their work was registered. In the U.S. at least, most copyright attorneys may likely tell you unless your work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office getting a court to take your case might be difficult. And if you do, your will need to be able to articulate damages if your goal is to collect on financial damages.
Ideally if you have concerns about copyright it is best to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office (http://www.copyright.gov/) or its equivelent if you are located outside of the U.S. I am a big proponent of this because once you have your work registered, you are in a much better position to protect your work and collect statutory damages if you need to. For those that are worried about the cost, the good new is you can “batch” register your work which is what some fine art photographers I know will do. This allows you to register multiple images online for a flat fee of $55. You will want to visit the U.S. Copyright Office website for more details but if you have several hundred images you want to do at a time, you can see how this is cost effective. If you are an artist such as a painter or work in other traditional methods you might want to wait until you have several works you can register together. Hopefully you will never fall victim to copyright infringement but the more people who like your work, the greater the risk. Also if you have aspirations of becoming well known your expect someone to try to copy it, whether it be on the web or in actual print.
Digital artist Aaron Rutten discusses and shows you how to use Google to find copyright offenders without your permission. He also shows how you can include copyright information in the meta-data of your images. It's not just for digital art but for your photography as well.