US Congress Debating Copyright Small Claims Reform Bill – Great News for Independent Photographers


Copyright claims might be getting a little easier for photographers. Legislation proposed by Copyright Alternative in Small Claims Enforcement Act of 2017 (CASE) would streamline the federal copyright small claims process, reducing cost of litigation and limiting friction in the copyright claims process for photographers.

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Introduced to the US Congress by Hakeem Jeffries of the Democrat Party and Tom Marino, of the Republican Party, the bill is supported by the American Society of Media Photographers, American Photographic Artists, National Press Photographers Association, Professional Photographers of America, North American Nature Photography Association, and many others. The bill draws heavily from a February 2016 bill proposed by visual artists groups, according to DPReview.

The vast majority of cases involving copyright infringement, particularly when it comes to photography, concern the misuse of a photograph, typically without permission or compensation, by a single individual, small business, or group. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the cost of pursuing litigation in the widely unpredictable, vastly complicated federal courts system prohibits many photographers from successfully filing, winning, and collecting on that small claims case.

Copyright Defence estimates that the costs of litigation for small firms could approach a full year’s earnings for that independent company. Further, copyright lawyers, driven by the same profit incentive that keeps commerce flowing around the world, normally will not accept a case with damages less than $30,000.

The average claim, however, according to Copyright Defense, is often less than $3,000.

In other words, the vast majority of offenses will go unpunished, leaving creators and photographers with little to no deterrent to theft of their original work. The old adage that the justice system is less about justice and more about being a system becomes ever more prescient as online businesses proliferate and bureaucratic systems established for the brick-and-mortar world struggle to accommodate or even keep up with the pace of change.

This is because the American copyright system is what is known as a one-size-fits-all system and is naturally inclined to favor high-value, low-volume infringements of copyrighted work. Think Billboard-ranking musicians, world-famous artists, multinational corporations, etc.

The system is broken when it comes to handling cases dealing with low-value, high-volume creators – such as independent photographers, authors, musicians, and others.

But are photographers (and other independent creators) just supposed to sit back and watch their work become abused, misappropriated, or, even worse, transformed into something else entirely – all without their permission?

The Copyright Alternative in Small Claims Enforcement Act of 2017 (CASE) will provide an alternative venue to the federal courts that is accessible and affordable for individual photographers and small studios, among other fields.

The proposed solution would involve the US Copyright Claims Office instead of the federal court system. Placing small claims under the purview of the US Copyright Claims Office immediately narrows the scope of most cases (being no longer under the burden of federal court scrutiny), ensures specialization with regard to copyright knowledge possessed by the judges and other officers of the court, and more efficiently protects independent creators from having their works stolen.

In a joint press release from the two congressmen titled “Reps. Jeffries, Marino Lead Bipartisan Effort to Help Musicians and Artists Protect Their Creative Work,” they outline their needs for this bill and the proposed solution: “The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act of 2017 will create a Copyright Claims Board (‘CCB') in order to provide a simple, quick and less expensive forum for copyright owners to enforce their intellectual property. The majority of the copyright owners that are affected by piracy and theft are independent creators with small copyright infringement claims. The CCB will establish an alternative forum to the Federal District Court for copyright owners to protect their work from infringement.”

In an immediate nod to the small, independent creators that are the backbone of the arts community, Representative Jeffries said: “The establishment of the Copyright Claims Board is critical for the creative middle class who deserve to benefit from the fruits of their labor. Copyright enforcement is essential to ensure that these artists, writers, musicians and other creators are able to commercialize their creative work in order to earn a livelihood. The CASE Act will enable creators to enforce copyright protected content in a fair, timely and affordable manner. This legislation is a strong step in the right direction.”

Representative Marino highlighted the bill’s provision for a small, efficient forums within which small claims of copyright violation can be swiftly handled with equity at the heart of the process.

Another representative that helped sponsor the bill said it is vital to the United States’ economic interests and leadership around the world that the federal government assist small creators in defending their work.

Participation by litigants in the Copyright Claims Board would be completely voluntary, with either party able to opt out of the process. The CCB will be a unit within the US federal copyright office and will exclusively handle cases of copyright infringement totaling less than $30,000.

A panel of three judges will adjudicate the proceedings and claimants and defendants do not even need to be present during proceedings, permitting to proceed pro se (without counsel).

The bill is also supported by the Authors Guild, American Society of Media Photographers, American Photographic Artists, National Press Photographers Association, Professional Photographers of America, North American Nature Photography Association, Songwriters Guild of America, Nashville Songwriters Association International, National Music Publishers Association, Digital Media Licensing Association, Graphic Artists Guild, Creative Future, and the Copyright Alliance.

About Author

Kehl is our staff photography news writer since 2017 and has over a decade of experience in online media and publishing and you can get to know him better here and follow him on Insta.

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