Karen Lynn Ingalls came to one of the first Office Hours sessions I offered. (You can see the next Office Hours session here.) And I’ve enjoyed getting to know her. She’s got a teacher’s heart and it was so nice to finally meet her IRL when she came to my CreativeLive workshop.
When Karen attended Office Hours, she had lots of questions related to copyright. And that’s because she was currently going through the situation she’s sharing here. Now that it’s resolved and she’s had time to process it, she’s sharing her experience with all of you.
Without diving into the nitty gritty, tell us a little about a time you learned the “legal” ropes…
I teach art workshops, and one day I discovered that someone had plagiarized my class and workshop descriptions. They’d altered them a little, but not much. Once I recovered from the shock, I looked back at their class descriptions, in community education program catalogs, and discovered that the person had even used a/b testing, testing my words against their old words, to see which worked better, over the course of a year.
After a whole lot of research online about what to do, I wound up writing and sending the person a cease and desist letter. I also documented each instance of plagiarism, including line by line comparisons of my words with hers, which I sent, with a cover letter asking that my words no longer be used, to this person’s employers. Then I received a letter from an attorney whom this person had hired, claiming there was no plagiarism — that person’s words were original (they clearly hadn’t seen the documentation I’d sent to the employer).
So I wrote a letter to the attorney, including a bulleted list of what was in the documentation I’d sent to the employers. I didn’t hear anything back after that.
The employer also changed the wording of those class descriptions, so they no longer used my words.
Yuck, that doesn’t sound fun, how did you feel at that moment?
Awful! Shocked that someone would do that, and angry that they would then lie about not doing it. And then worried about everything I had to do to make item stop, and what the law and the steps I needed to take legally were…. The whole process took six months from the initial discovery to sending my second letter to the attorney.
Awful! Shocked that someone would do that, and angry that they would then lie about not doing it.
Did this impact your creative business? How?
I figured it took at least a hundred hours of work on my part — work that I didn’t spend on my creative business, to begin with. And during those six months, it definitely had an emotional impact on me, and altered and affected my creative focus.
It also made me aware of how important it is to register the copyrights to my work — all my work, written as well as visual. I discovered that, although I hold the copyright to my work because I created it, if I need to take legal steps, I can’t recover my own costs, and the damages I would receive are limited — and probably nowhere near in proportion to the time and effort — and anxiety — I would spend.
What ropes did you learn from going through this experience?
I learned the necessity of copyrighting my work! There is no way I’d want to go through this again. I’m very careful about making sure my visual images posted online have small copyright notices on them, too. I was already careful about using small visual images online, so they couldn’t be reproduced with ease.
I learned the necessity of copyrighting my work! There is no way I’d want to go through this again.
But it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to copyright my writing! I work hard on my marketing language, and I’m a good writer, so my words aren’t just typical course descriptions. I realized, too, that my class handouts, some of which I’m in the slow process of making into a book, needed to be protected, too. I guess I though my creative babies would be okay out in the world, but I learned that they do need protection!
How can you avoid this experience?
Thanks for sharing Karen! It’s always tough to learn the hard way the importance of registering your copyrights.
Why register copyrights?
In the United States, you have a copyright from the moment you create your work.
But as Karen learned, the laws create huge incentives for registering your copyrights. And these incentives are critical when it comes to enforcing your copyright.
To get these incentives you must register copyrights within one of two magic windows:
- within three months of first publication or
- before the copycat strikes
If you win your lawsuit against a copycat and you’ve registered your copyright within one of the two magic windows, the first benefit comes in.
And that benefit is that your copycat must pay your attorney’s fees and all associated costs. Copyright infringement lawsuits are a huge expense (like $100K+). So this is a big benefit.
Even if you don’t file a lawsuit, this benefit will help you in two ways.
First, it turns your cease and desist letter from a fly swatter into a baseball bat. Which means your copycat is less likely to ignore you.
Second, it means you’ll be paying less out of your pocket. And that’s because you likely find an attorney who will help you on a contingency basis.
In a copyright infringement lawsuit, there are two parts.
The first part is all about proving that the copycat improperly copied your work.
The second part determines how much money you get.
Once again, if you’ve registered within one of our two magic windows, you’ll get help here. And that’s because the law allows you to opt into statutory damages. This ranges from $750-$30,000. Although it can go as low as $200 for innocent infringers. And as high as $150,000 for intentional infringers.
You don’t have to prove your normal licensing fee, their profits, or how much work you lost.
And for most creative businesses, what you can prove is FAR less than what you’ll get by opting into statutory damages.
This means registering your copyrights will increase your chances of getting your copycat situation resolved.
It can be overwhelming to register your copyrights
Learn to confidently register your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office…even if you have tried (and given up) before!
Get access to an in-depth course guiding you step-by-step and screen-by-screen through the process of registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. You’ll go from not knowing what you are going to register to having a strategy for future registrations.
And if you get stuck, you’ll have our 24/7 online community to help you out!
Want to connect with Karen? You can learn all about Karen’s workshops in the gorgeous Napa Valley here or view her artwork. She also shows what her students create in her painting workshop on her Facebook page.
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