Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) is expected to introduce a bill this month that would create a small claims court for intellectual property disputes. On September 2, she, along with two staff members, met in her local office in Pasadena, CA with four people from the photography community: photographer, ASMP member, and PLUS Coalition CEO Jeff Sedlik; Juliette Wolf-Robin, Executive Director of APA; photographer Dana Hursey; and myself.
We met with Rep. Chu on behalf of a coalition of visual artists’ trade organizations. In addition to ASMP, the coalition includes APA (American Photographic Artists), DMLA (Digital Media Licensing Association), GAG (Graphic Artists Guild), NPPA (National Press Photographers Association), NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association), PLUS (PLUS Coalition), and PPA (Professional Photographers of America).
Rep. Chu is a champion of creators’ rights and is the co-chair of the Creative Rights Caucus in the House of Representatives, a “bipartisan caucus dedicated to protecting the rights of the creative community.” (http://creativerightscaucus-chu.house.gov/)
The meeting was one of many conversations visual artists’ associations and individual photographers have had over the past few years regarding copyright law and procedures with Representatives and Senators and their staffs, as well as the Copyright Office. Recently, these discussions have focused on the need for a small claims tribunal—currently the top legislative priority of the visual artists’ coalition.
The small claims issue was highlighted last November at a meeting in Los Angeles between photographers and members of the House Judiciary Committee, including the Chair, Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Joe Keeley, chief counsel to the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet asked ASMP Executive Director Tom Kennedy to put together the meeting on behalf of Rep. Bob Goodlatte so that Committee members could speak directly with photographers. Juliette Wolf-Robin, Dana Hursey, and myself also attended that meeting along with several other local photographers.
At that time, Committee members heard about many issues facing photographers, including strategies for dealing with infringements, the daily realities of being a creative entrepreneur, the whys-and-hows of licensing, and the need for a small-claims court (or tribunal) to deal with the common kinds of infringements that do not involve sums large enough to be of interest to most attorneys.
Over the past several months, the push for a small claims bill has gained significant traction on Capitol Hill. In addition to Rep. Chu’s forthcoming bill, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) recently introduced his own small claims bill. The meeting with Rep. Chu was arranged so that we could thank her for her longstanding efforts on behalf of small creators in general, and in particular for her recognition of the need for a small claims court accessible to ordinary visual artists.
During the meeting with Rep. Chu, after we each introduced ourselves, Jeff Sedlik, who has testified many times before Congress and has met often with Rep. Chu and her staff, took the lead in our conversation. (You can watch a 2014 appearance by Sedlik before Congress, introduced by Rep. Chu: https://youtu.be/wX7lMDxMRNU?t=3m46s)
After explaining that we represented a coalition of visual artists — photographers, graphic artists, illustrators, and their licensing representatives — who support the need for a small claims tribunal, Sedlik described how difficult it is in the digital age for visual artists to protect their work and their rights and be compensated for infringements.
For instance, he indicated that even a small claim for $500 to $5,000 might well be the difference between someone being able to stay in business or not. Freelancers sometimes live from paycheck-to-paycheck, and so their work life exists in a different environment than for salaried employees. Moreover, similar stresses on emerging artists make it more difficult than ever for them to stay in business long enough to develop a career.
He further explained that creators typically cannot afford to bring copyright infringement lawsuits in federal court — the only venue in which they can pursue claims against infringers. So while small creators have rights, they effectively have no remedies when their works are infringed.
Additionally, Sedlik explained the costs and complications associated with registering work with the Copyright Office has kept many creators from doing so, thereby reducing a photographer’s ability to seek compensation through the protection of federal law.
Sedlik indicated our group was very pleased that the current draft of Rep. Chu’s bill contained many of the key components of an effective small claims bill — including that it does not require the parties to appear in person before the Washington, DC-based tribunal, but allows proceedings to be conducted from a distance by written submission or video conferencing.
He also said our coalition had identified other issues we hoped would be addressed by Rep. Chu’s bill. For example, Sedlik described the need to allow successful parties who have “won” in the small claims tribunal to bring suit against a defendant who refuses to pay in a more local federal district court rather than in the district court in Washington, DC, which would impose an enormous hardship on small creators. Sedlik presented a number of additional concerns and suggestions to Rep. Chu, who said the proposed solutions seemed logical.
In conclusion, Sedlik indicated the coalition is grateful for her efforts and will continue to make ourselves available to consult and help any way we can. Rep. Chu replied she was happy to continue to work with us as her bill moves closer to being introduced.