We are “blue in the face” in large measure because we keep cajoling, pleading, begging and even yelling (we are both New Yorkers ya’ know) that everyone ought register their copyrights with the US Copyright Office all of the time, always, no exceptions. As with all rules, along comes the apparent real life exception to our rule. It arises from legal advice that was given to a photographer from a photographer who wants to be a lawyer. The trouble with getting information from Internet experts, rather than lawyers, is they may posses what we call a “factoid”. Something that has a grain of truth so it sounds right, but is off the mark enough to not only be wrong, but off enough to cause you great distress (and loss of money).

Here is the slightly altered, but still real life scenario:

Photographer resides in, let’s say for example, the UK. She creates a photo that is licensed for use on a product, for a service, or even in a magazine as an editorial. Doesn’t matter which one. The important part is that she is paid in full and published in the UK/EU in strict accordance with the license she issued to her client. Shot is not registered in the USA because her “photographer/wannabe legal expert” tells her that there is no need to register in the US because it’s published in the UK/EU. She believes him because he authors a blog in which he discusses copyright!

A year later the image appears in the USA via a willful infringement by a US company which alters the embedded metadata and removes her watermark to boot. The use is for something not remotely contemplated by the photographer nor did she ever know of or hear of the infringer.

She naturally calls her “expert” who says, “No worries. You can still sue in the US even though you haven’t registered it there”.  Well the “expert’s” factoid is not entirely wrong, but rather just off the mark enough to cost the photographer lots of American greenbacks.

Here’s the legalease which we recite here not to bore you but to demonstrate how following the advice of something with a little knowledge can be a dangerous to your wallet. The Copyright Law is called Title 17 of the U.S. Code (or USC Title 17) and at Section 411(a) it states:

“Except for an action brought for a violation of the rights of the author under section 106A(a), and subject to the provisions of subsection (b),[1] no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title”. 

Plain English translation:

For over a hundred years, the United States resisted joining the Berne Union, in part because of the desire to maintain the formalities U.S. law required – one must register to sue. In order to be eligible to join the Berne Union, Congress had to amend the Copyright Act to dispose of the many formalities the Act required.

Therefore, while the United States Copyright Act can impose a requirement that the owner of a United States work must register the copyright with the Copyright Office before filing an infringement suit in federal court, BUT it cannot impose that same obligation on foreign nationals. 

The Berne convention does not require registration to file a suit (outside the USA) especially if the photo was previously and properly published in say, the EU. The U.S. finally joined the Berne Convention more than a century after it was drafted. The U.S. Congress, however, explicitly made the Berne Convention “non-executing” (hang on, exiting the “legal weeds” soon) which means that the Berne Convention has no legal effect in the courts of the U.S.; only the laws passed by Congress to conform U.S. law to the Berne Convention carry any weight.

Bottom Line: The U.S. Congress passed a law that eliminated the previous requirement that a foreign copyright holder had to register its work with the Copyright Office before being able to file a lawsuit in the USA. Thus, under the “Berne Implementation Act” a foreign rights holder (unlike a US citizen) does not need a formal registration to file a lawsuit in the U.S.. Sounds like an advantage if you are not a citizen. But the devil is in the details.  But (and it’s a big but) to obtain all the benefits of U.S. copyright laws, formal registration is still required.

Or as we say here on this side of the pond, “Yikes”.

So while the UK photographer can file her case for copyright infringement in the Federal Courts in the US of A, she can not seek statutory damages, attorneys fees nor is she the presumptive owner/creator of the image.  All of those remedies (especially the claims for statutory damages and attorneys fees) are now not available to her thanks to the advice of her online “expert”.  She can recover actual damages only if she files and wins her case in Federal Court.

While technically correct in that she could file her case in the USA without a registration, the potential monetary value of the case in our experience was reduced by only about $125,000 give or take a few bucks. On the bright side, her expert’s advice did spare her the then $35 registration fee that she would have paid to register her entire assignment shoot of about 100 images.  (She is now busy registering those works, some of which have been published, some not, necessitating multiple applications and at the increased filing fee of $55 now in effect).

And what of her “photographer/wannabe legal expert”, the source of copyright infringement wisdom? Did he go on to law school? Did his photo career take off? Nope. It seems that he has something to do with the wholesale distribution of food products in one of the smaller EU nations and no longer blogs nor creates photos.

So once again let us raise our voices to chant in unison, “Register everything, all of the time, no exceptions”.