[by Tom Salyer]
Back in 2013, the Copyright Defense League invited me to submit images as part of their testing and ramping up process. I don’t have a huge image library but I have some 2000 or so stock images out in the world so I thought “What the heck, why not?”
I gave CDL thumbnails of my stock images and they ran them through their system. They told me that their computer would put out a report of all the hits, and then someone from CDL would go through that list and cull it down to the ones they feel can be successfully pursued. They’re not going to go after someone’s grandma or anything like that. They’re really looking for unauthorized commercial uses in the United States.
Within a month or so, they sent me the first print out of potential infringements they wanted to pursue and then, every month or so after that, I’d get another one. Each spreadsheet has a column with the image number, a web link for the infringement and fields where you need to confirm that it’s really your image, tell them if it’s registered and if so, what the registration number is, and whether this use was authorized.
In some cases, since these images were licensed through agencies, I wouldn’t know whether the use was authorized or not, so I’d have to ask the agency to double check. All in all, it took me a few afternoons to go through and fill out the spreadsheets.
Luckily, answering the registration question was easy for me – I register pretty much everything! Since going digital, any time I shoot anything – even an iPhone picture of my cat – I bring it into Lightroom, where I have an action that automatically creates a thumbnail for the Library of Congress. If it’s a big job, I’ll register it right away but no matter what I send a registration into the Copyright Office every couple of months. So, for my digital images, all I had to do was search those thumbnails for the file name and I could easily pull up the registration number for that batch.
I started registering everything in 1998. Back then, I’d put all my chromes on a light table, shoot a negative, send that over to Eckert Drug Store and have them make 2 prints – one for me and one for the Copyright Office. So all my film work was registered but it was little harder to track the registration number for the specific images because I didn’t use the best naming and tracking system in those days, but it was still manageable.
Pretty soon, I started getting updates about the settlements they were pursuing and then the checks started showing up. Some of the settlements are small – $300 for a car dealership that lifted one of my sunset photos – but others have gone up to $7500. Once they deduct their expenses and we split what’s left, I’m getting around 27% of the total settlement. By Spring 2014, they had brought in around $23,000 in total and I got around $6000 of that.
To me, that’s very satisfactory. These aren’t high value celebrity images and I don’t have tens of thousands of images out there. It was a minimal amount of effort on my part to get this money and it’s all for uses that I never would have otherwise even known about.
The real key here is registration. If I hadn’t registered my work, none of this would have been possible. ASMP was talking about this back in ’97 or ’98 and that’s why I started registering all of my images. The only tool I have as the little guy is registration.
I continually run into people who say, “Oh it’s too much work.” or “I only register my best images.” I say, you’re putting everything into your Lightroom archive anyway, just set it up to run thumbnails every couple of months –make it part of your workflow. It’s really pretty easy to do.
If you’re one of those people who haven’t started registering all of your work yet, just start doing it now and make it a habit moving forward. Don’t worry about your archives, just start with your new work. In a few years, you’ll have a pretty big body of registered work.
I say that I register because it’s the only tool I have as the little guy, but as the little guy, going to Federal Court is a really big deal. It’s time consuming and expensive, and it’s just not worth it for smaller infringements. It’s great to have CDL and their law firm take care of this for me. I’d rather get a few hundred bucks from some car company that steals one of my photos and see them pay for that use than get nothing and let them get away with it.
Tom Salyer has been a professional photographer since 1973. He started out as a staffer with a small daily in Seattle, then moved to Miami as staffer for United Press International, shooting everything from football to space shuttle launches and international news. In 1990, he started freelancing for Time, Forbes and other publications, eventually launching his own business as a still photographer and multimedia producer. Today, he also serves a wide range of clients as a location sound recordist.