Matthew York Videomaker's Publisher/Editor.

That’s why it can feel like a very personal violation if someone copies or distributes your work without permission. Naturally, you want to do whatever you can to stop them.

For those who produce media for money, there is more at stake than feelings of violation. When your livelihood depends on the sale of your work, legally protecting your productions is an absolute necessity. If someone not only copies, but sells your work without permission, they’re taking money out of your pocket. You absolutely have the right to take them to court. But, is it worthwhile to pursue a legal battle over a copyright violation of your work? It depends.

In order to take full advantage of the protections of U.S. copyright law, you need to formally register your work with the copyright office of the Federal government. You may register a work before it is completed, or you can file for copyright up to three months later. The application fee is just $35, and the copyright takes effect the moment the application is received by the copyright office. The important distinction is that you will want to have your work registered before you take any legal action. It is not wise to not wait until after a violation has taken place to register a work. If you feel something is worthy of legal protection, file for your copyright before you release the piece to the public. Once you have a piece registered, you have the power to sue if someone infringes on your copyright. Registering for a copyright also qualifies you for Statutory Damages of between $750 and $150,000, no matter how much money the violator made from the theft of your work, and without having to show proof of the actual damages. If you have not registered a work, you can still invoke your copyright since your work is still protected under the law, but you may only recapture the actual amount of damages that you can prove you have suffered.

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The important distinction is that you will want to have your work registered before you take any legal action. It is not wise to not wait until after a violation has taken place to register a work.

It is important to know that copyright trials can be incredibly expensive and can take a long time to see through the judicial process. Unless you have a case that is worth tens of thousands of dollars, the cost of hiring a lawyer may exceed any damages you might expect to recover. If, for example, you’ve created a high-profile exercise video for your multi-million dollar weight-loss system, and that piece is pirated by a competing company, it may be well worth the effort to sue. If, however, you produce a video of a local children’s dance recital that you will sell to parents for $20 per copy, and find that another parent is making making duplicates without your permission, you may rightly determine that the cost of litigation would easily exceed any real damages. In cases like these, which are far more common, it is often enough to send a cease and desist letter to the violator and merely make them aware that you could file suit. Oftentimes simply informing them of the infringement will stop them from continued violation. You can send a cease and desist without having filed for a copyright, but if you have filed, you can do so with the full power of the law behind you, and with the legal ability to receive Statutory Damages. 

While I hope this never happens to you, it is wise to take proper measures in advance of a violation in order to have a plan in place that will deter copyright violators and to allow you the option of recapturing maximum compensation for damages that you may suffer as a result of such an infringement.

Matthew York is Videomaker's Publisher/Editor.