You Choose: Four Years of Litigation or Taking Care of the Copyright Portfolio

By Dave Rein

As one of my daughters has discovered Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, I wonder whether she'll be inspired to try some of Calvin's outlandish ideas such as barreling down a steep hillside and over the abyss in a red wagon or if she'll make the proverbial "note to self" not to follow Calvin when the last frame shows the resulting crash.

I get it.  There are metaphors and life lessons and the yearning for a more exciting life.  But, I'm not sure that casting away the "dull and boring" best practices is a good way to protect one's intellectual property.  The Seventh Circuit in Schrock v. Learning Curve Int'l, Inc. helped clarify some lingering questions about derivatives in the copyright world -- at least in that circuit.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, to do so, the parties spent four years just to get to an oral argument before the Court of Appeals.

In reading the opinion, two things struck me that might have avoided the litigation or at least kept it from being so prolonged.  First, it could have registered its copyrights in the toys.  Some of the toy maker's registrations only applied to literary works related to the toys, but not the toys themselves.  Whether the toy maker was the owner of the copyrights and whether they were properly registered (and therefore entitled to all presumptions that follow) was a matter the judges expressed considerable interest in at oral argument.  

Second, the licensing agreement between the toy maker and the photographer consisted of the terms stated in the photographer's invoices.  Leaving the determination of who owns a copyright and its licensing terms to the battle of the forms should make the true copyright owner nervous.  In Schrock, the toy maker realized what happened years after it started doing business with the photographer and asked him to sign a "work for hire contract".   He refused, but even if the photographer had signed the contract years after he first provided photographs, that may not have solved the problem.  Some jurisdictions require that the contract be signed before the work is created or at least require that it memorialize an oral agreement made before the work's creation. That may have been too high a hurdle in this case although it likely would have been effective if entered at the onset of the work.

Regardless of whether a work-for-hire contract would have been effective, the court noted that the parties could have contractually agreed that the photographer would not register his copyrights in the photographs.  Actually, it did more than note that issue.  It remanded the case back to the district court to determine if the parties agreed to such a limitation.   

Certainly keeping up with copyright registrations and thousands of contracts is a constant struggle for companies or individuals that continuously create new content.  In these times when general counsels are under increasing pressure to reduce their departments' budgets, it is even harder to do so.  The challenge then is how can they convince upper management of the wisdom to spend money now to avoid paying even more later.

The parties' ordeal in Schrock may be useful to show that even companies with good copyright practices might benefit if more resources are devoted to auditing the company's contracts and copyrights and maintaining them. Litigation is not always avoidable, but anyone who owns copyrights and enters into contracts involving copyrights might be able to avoid prolonging the litigation and save money in the long run. At least it is better than throwing your copyrights on a red wagon with Calvin and hoping that they fly safely across the abyss.

Now For Something Completely Different: Mattel Licenses "Barbie Girl" From Aqua

By Dave Rein

commercial that played this Halloween promoting a new line of Barbie Fashionista dolls reminded me of an earlier blog post in which I wrote about some of the legal lessons learned from Barbie.  One of those lessons involved the parody of Barbie in the song "Barbie Girl" by the group Aqua to which Mattel did not take kindly and sued.  In 2002, the Ninth Circuit ruled against Mattel in an opinion written by Judge Kozinski and in the process, helped shape the contours of the First Amendment and the trademark fair use defense.

The commercial shows that it took seven years, but the parties have apparently heeded Judge Kozinski's admonition that the:  "parties are advised to chill."  In a "Now For Something Completely Different" moment, Mattel and Aqua have joined forces in a series of commercials to promote the Barbie line of dolls and Barbie's first music video by using a reworked version of the "Barbie Girl" song:

I am not privy to the licensing deal, but in answer to a number of commentators and bloggers, Mattel is not using the song for free.  Aqua and MCA Records were successful in their fair use defense because the song is a parody of Barbie.  The reworked song is not.  Nor could Mattel say that it was making fun of itself or of the song.  Instead, Mattel acknowledges that is is using the song because the song has become the "epitome of Barbie" and is now "iconic."

There may be those like Charlie Brown's sister, Sally, who decry that Aqua has "sold out" (7:25 into the video clip) to Mattel, but even Sally can agree that Aqua is getting its "restitution" through this licensing deal even if she lost out on trick-or-treating this Halloween.

Are You Gambling With Your Copyright By Entering That Photography Contest?

By Dave Rein

"Winner, winner, chicken dinner!"  I'm told that the phrase first started in Las Vegas casinos where you would hear gamblers and dealers yell it out  as winners would earn enough from their bets to buy the three-piece chicken special at the casinos.  Whatever its origins, the phrase makes me smile after hearing it.  

Thoughts of winning one of the countless photography contests also brings a smile to many as well -- amateurs and professionals alike.  Who wouldn't like to win a Canon 5D Mark II or maybe that lens you've been eying?  Before sending the kids out to lure the buffalo herd a little closer to get that winning shot, you might want to do some reading.

Reading, as in reading those pesky rules or what is usually called "terms and conditions."  The terms vary from a photographer giving the promoter a non-exclusive right to use the photograph for a limited purpose and limited period of time to granting the promoter all the rights in your photograph.  Of course, if you care to give the promoter all of the rights to your photograph, you might consider taking it off of your website and stop selling those signed prints because you might get sued!

Far fetched?  Gary Crabee wrote in his Enlightened Images photoblog about Costco's photo contest in which, by entering the contest, the contestants assign the copyright to any image to Costco.  Costco is not alone.  There may be questions of the enforceability of the clause, but Gary is right that Costco and others with these terms arguably can sue any contestant who continues to reproduce or distribute what used to be the contestant's own photograph!  I like to think that Costco would not enforce the full-extent of the assignment, but do you gamble on that by entering one of your bread-and-butter photographs in the contest?  By assigning all your rights, stock agencies like Getty Images are also not likely to accept your photograph.  Presto!  You've just deprived you of another source of income.

Most contests don't require the photographer to assign all of his or her rights, yet the terms and conditions can still be fairly broad.  In Walt Disney's Messy Baby Contest, you grant Disney the right to use your photograph throughout the "universe" in "perpetuity" although you have the right to use the photography as well.  I'm at a bit of a loss in calculating the going rate for using an Ansel Adams photograph on Saturn or elsewhere in the universe.  But if you have a gem on your hands, do you think you can compete with Disney's marketing muscle here on Earth?  Sorry, but my money is on Disney. 

So what can you do to protect yourself before entering a contest?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read --the terms and conditions of the contest;
  2. Examine -- by following any links on the terms and conditions to see if there are any buried terms.
  3. Think -- before entering a contest where you assign "all the intellectual property rights",  grant "exclusive rights" or "perpetual rights";
  4. Consider recommendations -- by Pro-Imaging and others who monitor these contests.  Pro-Imaging, for example, uses its photographer's Bill of Rights to develop a list of "bad" contests and list of "good" contests

Armed with a little information, you can avoid the "sucker's bet" and call out with the rest of the contestants:  "Winner, winner, chicken dinner!"

 

Before Revealing Your Masterpiece On Facebook, Read The Terms Of Use

By Dave Rein

Either this week or next, Facebook will make it official that it will follow its new terms of use -- the legal stuff buried in a link at the bottom of the homepage entitled "Terms".  Who cares?

If you are a writer, photographer, musician or other creative type, you are likely to have a Facebook page and you definitely should care.

But, you don't need to be a writer or other artist to care.  What you post today may be worth something tomorrow -- whether by design or dumb luck.  If you are reading this blog and are under the age of 106, you are likely to be on Facebook or some other social networking site.  Facebook alone claims to have 200 million users and there seem to be enough social networking sites to fill a Costco-sized grocery cart.

Still, many creative people are using the enormous popularity of social networking sites to tap an international audience in hopes of creating a buzz that will promote his or her creations.  It is not uncommon for photographers, for example, to post pictures such as this one -- albeit much cooler -- on their page to generate interest.  Of course, this is not unique to photographers.  Writers, musicians and others who develop creative material regularly post their creations on social networking sites.  

Perhaps because there are so many people who have posted their creative works on Facebook, a mini-revolt took place when Facebook announced that it was changing the terms of use.  As the Consumerist reported, bloggers discovered that Facebook had changed its terms to arguably grant itself significant new rights to the creative works that users posted.  The change led several artists such as photographer, Jim Goldstein of San Francisco, to announce that they were removing their work from Facebook.

Facebook did back off of its broad terms and agreed to allow the Facebook community to chose whether to adopt the old set of terms or a revised set of terms.  Last Friday, Facebook announced that the tenative results (presumably subject to an inspection for hanging chads) showed that its users voted to approve the revised set of terms that are somewhat less broad that the ones that set off the mini-revolt.  I expect that we will hear an official confirmation of the vote soon.

So is it now safe to post your creative work on social networks?  I count myself as one who takes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at his word when he says that there was no intent to make a mass grab at the intellectual property rights stemming from user generated content.  But, you still need to get the terms of use right else a court may listen sympathetically and then rule:  "So sorry, too bad."

I am still puzzled by the expansive language that has been adopted.  One who posts anything on Facebook still gives Facebook a license to use the work for almost any purpose.  This is in stark contrast to terms on MySpace, Xanga and Bebo for example that more narrowly restrict the purpose for which the social network receives a license to use posted content.  Even better, Twitter expressly states that it does not claim any intellectual property rights over the material provided to Twitter.

For now, I think that someone who posts work that he or she created on Facebook should be cautious.  I don't think that there is anything sinister going on at Facebook, but the legal language still does not match its public statements.  The terms are better at several other social networking sites, but they are still fairly broad so read the terms of any social networking site before posting your work and check periodically to see that the terms have not changed.  Take these precautions before you post and avoid hearing the judge rule:  "So sorry, too bad!"