Industry News

Small Claims for Copyright: The CASE Act Becomes Law

December 28, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

Illustration © Sharon Ber

A victory for photographers and other creatives is being celebrated today, one day after President Trump signed into law a bill that includes the Copyright Alternative in Small Claims Enforcement Act (the CASE Act). Simply put, as the CASE Act becomes law, it can now provide an avenue for photographers and other copyright owners to pursue infringers in small claims court instead of federal court, which has not been a viable option for many independent artists in the past. (The small claims system is designed to allow photographers to have an alternative to hiring expensive copyright lawyers who often prefer to take on cases with larger payouts.)

Take Note Photographers: 5 Common Legal Issues to Comprehend.

The signing into law of the CASE Act on December 27, 2020 also marks the end of a 14-year push to create a small claims process that makes it easier for photographers and other creatives to protect their work against copyright infringement. The Act was part of a massive Omnibus bill that includes more than $900 billion in Coronavirus relief and stimulus spending, in addition to another $1.4 trillion to run the government through next September.

Copyright Alliance CEO Keith Kupferschmid released the following statement last week after Congress passed the CASE Act but before it had been signed into law yesterday by President Trump:

“The CASE Act has been a critical legislative priority for hundreds of thousands of photographers, illustrators, graphic artists, songwriters, authors, bloggers, YouTubers and many other creators and small businesses across the country. For far too long, these individual creators have had rights but no means of enforcing them due to the expense and complexity of federal court. With today’s passage of the CASE Act, creators will have a voluntary, inexpensive and streamlined alternative —a small claims tribunal that will be housed within the U.S. Copyright Office—enabling them to defend their copyrighted works from infringement.”

[Read: 5 Simple Ways to Lock Down and Protect Your Photography Brand]

Here’s the abridged version of how the system will work for photographers: Rather than file a federal lawsuit, photographers will be able to bring their infringement claims before a Copyright Claims Board within the U.S. Copyright Office—a three-member panel of experts in copyright law. This panel would be able to award photographers up to $15,000 per work and $30,000 per claim, assuming the works are registered with the office. For unregistered photos, photographers would only be eligible for $7,500 per work and $15,000 per claim. In addition to monetary penalties, the board could also simply send the infringer a notice to cease the infringement.

The nonprofit association Professional Photographers of America (PPA) has been working with Congress for years to pass this important piece of legislation. During that time, PPA members wrote thousands of letters and made phone calls to their representatives asking for support. “It is exciting to see what our organization and its members can do when we set our mind to something,” said PPA president Gregory Daniel in a statement posted earlier today.

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) was also among the organizations celebrating the new passage of the bill, acknowledging it as well as a victory for working photographers. “Photojournalists have long called for a better approach to defending their copyright,” said NPPA President Andrew Stanfill. “This is the culmination of years of hard work by our advocacy team and the NPPA members who took time to champion the issue. We’re thankful for all the organizations and legislators who came together on this and look forward to seeing it implemented as intended.”