An Oregon group of photographers has joined a national movement to push a bill through Congress that would give individuals and small creative companies a new avenue to recoup damages in cases of copyright infringement.
Instances of individuals and businesses using creative work such as photographs or written pieces without permission from the original creators have increased since the rise of the internet. However, the only avenue for photographers, writers, musicians and artists to pursue claims to recoup lost revenue for unapproved use of the work has been in federal court.
"The rights exist, but the remedies are not there," said Tom Kennedy, executive director of the American Society of Media Photographers.
The Copyright Alternative in Small-claims Enforcement Act, (CASE Act), which Kennedy's group played a key role in developing, seeks to change that. The act calls for the creation of a system that would work similar to a small-claims court, where artists and other creators would be able to seek financial compensation for art, music and writing used without their permission. The system would be under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Copyright Office.
The bill originally was introduced in Congress in 2017, driven mainly by photographers, but ran into opposition from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
This time around, there's a larger and more diverse group pushing for passage of the bill, according to Kennedy. In addition to drumming up support from chapters in Oregon and other parts of the country, Kennedy's group has joined efforts with the Copyright Alliance, an umbrella group of stakeholders with an interest in copyright.
The willingness of such a wide range of creative sectors to come together shows just how serious the issue of copyright infringement has become as a result of technological advances and why it's important to give artists an easier and faster way to pursue compensation for unpermitted use of their work, according to Kennedy.
"It's an accelerating problem as the digital age is coming into fuller flower," he said.
Jenna Close, director of photography at a San Diego-based studio called Buck the Cubicle, has had more than a few experiences with her images being taken off the internet and used without her permission.
"Right now, the internet is this amazing resource and we use it for good, but we can also (misuse it)," Close said. "It's a very easy avenue for taking other people's work and using it without their permission."
Often, the person using the art doesn't realize they need to ask permission. But Close also has run into situations where the images have been used by large companies, parties she says often know they should ask permission and simply don't because they expect the creator doesn't have the resources to pursue the issue in federal court.
The federal process is time consuming and can end up costing more than an artist or small creative firm will be able to recoup for the misused images, according to Close, who helped develop the bill while serving on the board of the American Society of Media Photographers.
"Most of us (small creative firms) already are walking a fine budgetary line and when you get into this situation, you don't know how much you'll have to spend," she said.
Under the proposed CASE Act bill, an artist would still have to pay to file a claim against a copyright violator, but the fee would be far less than at the federal court level.
The bill offers starting points for how the system could operate, recommending a three-person panel that would hear cases as well as suggesting monetary caps of reimbursement of $15,000 per single image and $30,000 per claim.
Some details of how the panel would work are still up in the air, however. There's uncertainty, for example, regarding where money could come from to pay the tribunal members and staff to process paperwork. The groups that drove the wording in the bill, including Kennedy's organization, have suggested that fees artists pay when they register their work with the copyright office could be used to run the program. That approach also would likely fix a problem the copyright office has long struggled with.
"Only a tiny minority of members of individual creative groups register their work regularly," Kennedys aid. "We think the vast majority of individual creators are … not paying into the system … implementation of the CASE Act would reverse that polarity and the likelihood of that income would make a major contribution to the funding of the (judiciary panel) system."
Creators would still have the option of choosing to pursue a claim at the federal level instead of the small-claims level if they feel the amount of recovery being sought warrants an amount higher than at the small claims cap.
The Oregon chapter of the media photographers' group has joined the national organization to ask members to send letters and emails to Congressional delegates, asking for their support for the bill. The idea, according to Kennedy and Close, is to have a flood of communication reach Capitol Hill all at once.
"Really, this last push is do or die. If this bill gets blocked by even a single person in session, we're done," Close said.
"It's not just photographers this bill affects — it's writers, musicians, painters," she added. 'We need to have a wave of people writing in, asking (elected officials) to support this."
Even if the CASE Act wins approval, there are still other issues related to copyrights that Kennedy says his group feels need to be changed in order to provide more support and protection for all artists and their work.
"We've been dealing with a variety of issues about copyright reform," he said. "The CASE Act is just one aspect of an overall effort to suggest reforms to the copyright system."
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