Legal Expert Weighs In On Orphan Works

Intellectual properties attorney Tammy Browning-Smith, who specializes in the area of arts and crafts law, has weighed in on the orphan works legislation before Congress and is very concerned about its effects on artists.

The potential problems that Browning-Smith sees are not only in the letter of the actual law itself, but also in how it will affect our copyright relationships with other Berne Convention countries (the international treaty that governs copyright) and with how the definition of “diligent” search might evolve with the institution of the databases.

Browning-Smith has sent two letters to Congress, one for each of the bills. What follows is her letter to the House regarding their bill, which clearly explains what she sees as the legal implications of the legislation in the House:

May 6, 2008

RE: Orphan Works Act of 2008 – H. R. 5889
Dear Distinguished Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed Bill.  THIS IS A SERIOUS BILL WITH SERIOUS ECONOMIC IMPACT. Our law firm focuses extensively on the creative arts industries and represents both manufacturers and individuals through counseling, registration and litigation. After a thorough review of the proposed Bill, the following comments are offered from a legal professional who would be “in the trenches” if this Bill were to pass.

Nullification of the Copyright Act of 1976
Artists relied on the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976 that did not require them to place the copyright notice on their work in order for them to own their copyright. The additional provisions of this bill do not change the language of §401(a). The Act clearly states that “copyright…subsists from its creation.” The Bill does not state that this language will be changed to “copyright…subsists from its creation provided that you register, use the correct search terms, and can pay for it.” This Bill puts a large requirement on individuals to register and use large amounts of financial resources to protect an artistic work.

Databases and Reasonable Search
Copyright registration continues to be the most accessible intellectual property protection available to the public. The fees are minimal and the forms understandable so that an average person could complete the task with relative ease. The proposed bill changes that premise. It is my understanding that the House Bill does not have a Private Database provision. While that is applauded, it still creates a terrible issue regarding the “reasonable search” requirements. Google databases and the internet are not sufficient nor are Artists required to register with them. Copyright Registrants will need to use carefully selected terms in order to insure that a work is able to be found. The expertise required will force registrants to seek legal counsel and other professionals at substantial costs in order to obtain protection. This makes a “user friendly” system inaccessible to many and then will create orphans because many will no longer be able to register their works.. Millions of artists relied on the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976 that did not require them to use a copyright statement. The Artists who followed that law are now being punished and the new provisions in essence create an Ex Post Facto law that punishes the Artists for following a law in the first place. This is outrageous.

Reasonable Compensation & Relief

The majority of creative individuals do not make large sums of money. The term “Reasonable Compensation” opens the door for a significant amount of litigation. Highly qualified individuals disagree on what “reasonable compensation” would be on any given license. Daily our firm works with licenses and knows the complexity that goes into them. It is impossible to determine the value of a license without having the license actually go to full term. Allowing an infringer to only pay “reasonable compensation” would require an artist to wait for compensation and then would limit his or her abilities to exploit the art, as the art is already in use in public. For example, an infringing use of artwork on textiles would prevent the rightful owner from entering into a potentially far more profitable exclusive licensing arrangement with a manufacturer of his/her choice. Litigation is expensive. Many artists are only able to bring such cases forward because of contingency arrangements made with a law firm. This type of litigation has not over burdened the court system nor has it been shown to be abused. This type of litigation permits an injured person his or her day in court. This Bill would remove such an opportunity. Not only would it remove any financial incentive for attorneys and artists to work together, it would also make it almost impossible to bring a case forward because of the heavy financial requirements placed on the artist. The financial (and technical) requirements of this Bill truly assume that an artist is “guilty of failing to comply until proven innocent” instead of the reverse.

Works Based on the Infringed Art
The most appalling and morally outrageous part of this Bill pertains to the registration of new works created from the infringed upon work and the prohibition of the injunctive relief if a work”…. integrates the infringed work with a significant amount of the infringer’s original expression.” The US Courts have never adopted a bright line test in regards to the changes of an original work in order for the new work not to be an infringer of the old. This bill suggests that there is a rule for changing an existing work and making it a new work, yet it fails to state the exact rule. Failing to specify a rule creates legal havoc. Not only does it create legal havoc, it causes substantial confusion to the public and requires significant money to be spent in order for a judicial body to determine what is a “significant amount.”

International Implications
The global marketplace will become even more difficult to navigate because of this bill. International Artists’ rights will be greatly compromised here in the US. This invites sanctions under the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).  Furthermore, if a manufacturer were to rely on the US “Safe Harbor” for orphan works and ship the merchandising containing an infringing work to a Berne Convention country, the manufacturer could face stiff penalties for infringement as the Berne Convention does not recognize such a term as “orphan works” and states that copyright ownership is free from formality. The Berne Convention gives US Citizens the rights to protect their work in other countries, but this bill would mean that US Citizens may not be able to protect his or her own rights in their homeland if “formalities” were not followed.

Everyday Application
This Bill will take the copyright registration and enforcement out of the hands of the individual artists and place them squarely in attorneys’ hands. It establishes systems to determine what is fair and what is reasonable in a field where individual facts and situations dictate the outcome, thus making “bright line” rules burdensome and unfair. The windfall for the legal profession will come at the cost of untold artists whose works will be free for the taking. Citizens will no longer be able to register their own copyrights without significant expertise or expense, and in fact this Bill essentially states that copyright registration is not sufficient to protect one’s work. This Bill takes a piece of the government out of the citizens’ hands and places it in the hands of a select few. Furthermore, the Bill gives persons the opportunity to register their use of an Orphan Work, but it does not require any visual if available. The registry does not give a person full absolution and it is very possible that a company will open itself to liability if it cannot truly prove a “reasonable search” and that it complied with all the technicalities of the requirements. A cottage industry of attorneys tolling for opportunities will surely develop.

Useful Articles
The most difficult part of the Bill that will truly create the most legal difficulties comes to the term “useful articles.” Useful Articles share such a broad definition that it could be a nightmare. The definition from 17 U.S.C. §101 states:

A “useful article” is an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. An article that is normally a part of a useful article is considered a “useful article”. A picture on a wall portrays the appearance of the article, but it also decorates a room. Fabric is argued to be a useful article, yet there are functions that it is not a useful article and a mere decoration. The House of Representatives reliance of the definition used in the current law demonstrates a lack of understanding of the impact that this Bill will have and the legal havoc that it will create. There are many emotional arguments against this Bill, but there are even greater procedural and legal issues that makes this Bill impossible for the average person to use.

Economic Impact
A prime example of an impact of this Bill that has not been considered is tourism. Rural Art Communities, Amish Crafts persons, and Artisan Communities will be dramatically affected by this. Most of these communities contain unsophisticated creators that bring about substantial tourism dollars to many economies. At this time, the only manner that many of these works are protected are under the current Copyright Law. Many of these works would be made orphans and subject to mass production. The charm, uniqueness and even financial incentives for creating unique, originals will be gone. The items created by these special creators would readily be available for the mass market without a cost effective and reasonable way for these creators to seek compensation.

Please know that our firm is willing to answer any questions that you may have or provide testimony on this matter at any time. We are a law firm that handles these issues on a daily basis. Our representation is diverse including famous brands, famous artists, manufacturers and those waiting to be discovered. I personally hold a Juris Doctor and a Master of Laws in Intellectual Property. We live copyright law on a daily basis and would see first hand what consequences this Bill would have on both sides of this issue.

Tammy L. Browning-Smith, J.D., LL.M

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