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Dawn's design office

Graphic Designer Dawn’s Story: Why We Need the CASE Act

A © Infringement Case Study

This article is part of our ongoing series highlighting the many ways the work of graphic artists is stolen. If you have an infringement story you’d like to share, contact us at advocacy@graphicartistsguild.org.

Dawn is a graphic designer running a small design studio in North Carolina. Her clientele is drawn from a wide range of local businesses – health clinics, professional firms, retail businesses, B2B services, technology companies, etc. She is well-regarded in the small business community and takes care to develop her professional relationships. Nevertheless, she’s experienced a growing trend: clients using the logos she’s created for them but refusing to pay their final bills.

Dawn is a careful business owner. When she first started her business, she hired a lawyer to help her draft her standard contract, and she periodically has her lawyer review this document. Like many graphic designers, Dawn usually has her clients sign an all-rights agreement for the logos she creates for them. That way, the client can use the logo in the future as they need, and Dawn makes sure she is compensated for transferring the copyrights to them. However, to ensure that her clients pay their final bill, Dawn has included the following term in her contracts: “Until we receive your final balance, all designs, logos, and artwork remain our copyright and exclusive property.”

Despite that language, some clients try to take advantage of Dawn. The problem is that, as Dawn works on a logo design, she supplies her clients with digital versions to show them how she is developing it. This makes Dawn’s work vulnerable to infringement. It’s very easy for a client to grab a logo design Dawn has sent them to approve and use it without her permission and before paying her final invoice.

In the past few years, Dawn has experienced a growing trend: clients using the logos she’s created for them but refusing to pay their final bills.

This has happened twice in the past year. In the first instance, a client failed to pay Dawn’s final bill, and refused to take her calls. She realized the client had started using the logo she created on his website. Dawn contacted the web host with a DMCA notice, asking them to take it down. Unfortunately, the web host – also a small business in North Carolina – knows the client personally and refused to remove the logo. Both the client and the web host refuse to speak any further with Dawn.

In the second instance, Dawn created a logo and marketing materials for a high-end event. The client used the designs that Dawn had sent for final approval, but then ignored the final invoice. When Dawn tried to get paid for her work, she found that the client had closed their office, changed their telephone number, and stopped answering emails.

Dawn hired an attorney to help her with both cases. So far, her attorney has managed to track down the event client and get them to agree to a payment schedule for the outstanding invoice. However, the attorney’s fees have eaten up half of the amount Dawn has received thus far. They haven’t been as successful with the first client, who continues to ignore messages from Dawn and her attorney. Her attorney finally advised her to drop the issue, since the amount at stake is so small and a copyright infringement lawsuit would be very expensive.

Dawn believes that if a copyright small claims tribunal existed, she wouldn’t have such difficulties getting non-paying clients to honor her contracts.

Dawn believes that if a copyright small claims tribunal existed, she wouldn’t have such difficulties getting non-paying clients to honor her contracts. She feels that clients know her hands are currently tied since, as a small business owner, she doesn’t have the resources to invest in an expensive copyright infringement lawsuit. She also believes that if small design firm owners like herself had the means to defend their copyrights, clients would respect her contracts and her copyrights more. For these reasons, Dawn supports the CASE Act, legislation that provides a low-cost option for small copyright cases, and doesn’t require participants to hire attorneys. The CASE Act would give graphic designers like Dawn more leverage in dealing with non-paying clients, and an affordable option for defending her work.

Dawn’s experience tells the story of countless U.S. creators, who currently have rights but no remedies when it comes to protecting their works. With federal court being both complex and expensive, most creators don’t have the means to defend their creations from a legal perspective. That’s why they need the CASE Act, legislation that calls for the establishment of a small claims tribunal within the U.S. Copyright Office. Learn more about the CASE Act here, and how it would benefit creators across the country. Then, send a letter urging your elected officials to support the CASE Act here. It’s quick and easy to do!

Top photo: Dawn’s design studio office.

© Dawn Mitchell. Used with permission



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