Photographers Shutter at Plan to Boost Copyright Fees

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

A U.S. Copyright Office proposal to nearly double some fees has freelance photographers feeling exposed.

The agency wants to increase fees for a range of services. The fee for registering a single book or song, for example, would rise from $55 to $75 under the proposal. The fee for registering up to 750 images at once—something photographers often do—would jump from $55 to $100. The office will accept comments on the proposal until July 23.

The proposal is one more potential hurdle for photographers, who have grappled with rapid changes in markets and technology since the 1990s and struggle to police their copyrights in the digital age. Critics say the increase will discourage photographers from registering their copyrights, which runs counter to public interest.

The fee hike “unfortunately [is] only going to discourage, in particular, news photographers, who shoot lots of images with each assignment, ”Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association told Bloomberg Law.

The agency has sought increased funding to improve its information technology systems. The agency will finalize its proposal after the public comment period closes.

The Copyright Office has kept fees low to encourage registration, which is not mandatory. The more complete the agency’s registrations records are, the more valuable they are to creators to signal owners’ claims to potential users, and to potential licensees who find out who is claiming ownership.

Squeeze Is on Photographers

Day rates for photo assignments are declining, and health insurance costs for the self-employed, including freelance photographers, keep rising. Photographers, more than many other creators, have less time and money to track down and stop unauthorized copying of their works online.

Stuart Palley has been a freelance photographer for about five years, specializing in natural disaster and climate photography from his Orange County, Calif., home. But even during that time, he has felt the squeeze.

Palley told Bloomberg Law he registers 500 to 1,000 images with the Copyright Office each year. He expects to pay about $400 yearly under the proposed increases, double what he pays now. He said the fee hike would be another example of “death by a thousand cuts” for photographers.

Eugene Mopsik, CEO of the American Society for Collective Rights Licensing, told Bloomberg Law that some news photographers can take 1,000 pictures in a day on just one gig.

“I don’t see how this increase is going to serve the objective of the copyright system to increase registrations,” said Mopsik, who was a professional photographer for more than 30 years. “It’ll reduce them.”

Agency Accepting Input

The Copyright Offfice will consider any concrete evidence about the potential impact of the fee increases, Karyn A. Temple, the acting head of the agency, told Bloomberg Law. Temple said the agency strove to balance the public interest, the needs of the copyright system, the cost of providing services, and any effect on creators in developing its proposal.

“We think our proposed fees represent a good balance, but look forward to engaging with the public on the proposed fees through the rulemaking process,” she said.

‘Moderate’ Increase

The percentage increase looks large but is still “relatively moderate,” David Kohane, an intellectual property lawyer with Cole Schotz PC, told Bloomberg Law.

But Kohane also said photographers are among those who will be most impacted by the higher fees.

“The increases will be felt most by those who have large numbers of works to register and small businesspeople,” he said.

Copyright lawyer John D. Garretson of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, Kansas City, Mo., told Bloomberg Law that the agency has good reasons for raising the fees.

“The Copyright Office does a pretty good job of laying out the rational for its proposed fees,” Garretson said. He pointed out the slow growth of the basic registration fee, which was $20 in 1991.

“If you look at the sweep of history, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable increase,” he said.

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