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Graphic Designer Kate’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.

Dealing with copyright infringement is daunting for experienced professionals. It can be overwhelming for someone just starting out in the field, building their client base, and developing contacts. That was Kate’s experience in her small town in northern New Jersey.

Now Kate is an established designer, working on staff for a major retailer. However, when she began her career, she was the sole proprietor of her design firm, working for small businesses in her local community. Within the first few years, she was contacted by the local business development association for a design project. The association was working to rebrand the small town as a desirable place for small businesses to thrive. As a local small business owner (and a proud town resident), Kate was excited to work on a project she believed in.

The business development association requested the design of a logo and a stationery system. After Kate signed her contract with the client, she started developing the mark. The town features an iconic landmark she  could utilize as an element the logo. Kate partnered with a local illustrator—one who was nationally recognized for his archetypal illustration style ­to create a simple drawing of the landmark. Kate then created a design with attractive typography framing the illustration and designed a matching stationery system. The client was delighted with the design, so Kate supplied the electronic files for the client’s printer to use. She submitted her invoice for a project she thought had gone very smoothly.

Kate knew that, should she pursue a copyright infringement case, the client would be able to cast the dispute as a shakedown on her part. That would be devastating to her reputation and relationships within the local business community.

A few weeks later, Kate was startled to see that the logo illustration had been applied to municipal trucks. Soon afterward, the logo was being used on promotional materials, which were now appearing all around  town. She realized that her client had hired another agency to extract the illustration from the logo and apply it to an array of collateral. She contacted the business development association to notify them that they were violating the copyrights on the logo, as neither Kate nor the illustrator had given the client permission to use the logo outside of the stationery design.

At that point, the town lawyer became involved. He called Kate into his office and notified her that, should she pursue the copyright infringement, she would not be paid for the logo project. The choice was stark: forego needed income and pursue a copyright infringement against a client with the town’s lawyer at their disposal, or back down and get her invoice paid immediately. Kate conferred with the illustrator, and the two decided not to pursue the copyright infringement. Kate was forced to sign a document stating that she would never pursue a copyright infringement lawsuit against the client, effectively relinquishing her copyrights.

So why did Kate and the illustrator back down? There were many reasons behind their decision. The primary reason was the assessment that the two of them did not have the financial resources to pursue a copyright infringement lawsuit against a client who had the services of the town lawyer. Kate also had to consider the defamation—unfair or not—that could have been done to her as a town resident and small business owner. Artists who seek to assert their copyrights are often accused of greed. Kate knew that, should she pursue a copyright infringement case, the client would be able to cast the dispute as a shakedown on her part. That would be devastating to her reputation and relationships within the local business community. While the client did pay her invoice, seeing the logo around town to this day leaves a bad taste in Kate’s mouth. She’s galled that an association with a mission to support local small businesses had no issue with taking advantage of her small business.

After all, all that individual artists like Kate want is what every small business owner wants – to be treated ethically, and with respect.

This is a significant reason why Kate supports The CASE Act, S. 1273. Few people outside the creative community realize how important copyright is to individual artists. The average individual believes that only large corporations and media companies benefit from copyright. The truth is that the vast majority of copyrights in the United States are owned by individuals—photographers, illustrators, designers, writers, musicians, etc. Managing and monetizing their copyrights by licensing their work is an important income stream for artists. By offering small businesses and sole proprietorships like Kate’s an affordable means to pursue copyright infringements, The CASE Act puts the spotlight back on individuals as copyright holders.

More importantly, the small copyright claims tribunal established by The CASE Act, S. 1273, would have given Kate an economically feasible avenue to pursue a copyright infringement case. That means clients with a lawyer on retainer won’t be able to as easily intimidate a sole designer into signing over their copyrights without compensation. But what Kate really hopes is that The CASE Act will encourage these clients to properly license artists’ works before an infringement ever happens. After all, all that individual artists like Kate want is what every small business owner wants— to be treated ethically and with respect.



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