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 wording of a demand letter will be blunted because it will lack those sticks.
Also, the power of citing the registration number is a factor in your opening position for negotiations. 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 it’s doubtful you’re going to want to take that path.
Moreover, if you ever want to file a case, well, you’re going to have to register the copyright before you can do that. No registration 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 copyrightbefore 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 Bar exam. Some of us have a lot more education than that and experience (for example, I’ve been working in commercial photography since the last century and I did PhD coursework). Then, there is 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.