Driving to work the other day, I happened to find myself driving behind the truck you see above. Apparently owned (or contracted) by an exterminating company called Manzano Pest Management of Albuquerque, NM. What caught my eye, was the clever little cartoon of the stone-age character pounding little critters with his hammer. Very appropriate for an exterminator. Then, I realized there was no copyright licensing statement or notice associated with the cartoon, indicating this was either not being used with permission or the business owner somehow created this image him- or herself. My mind immediately went to B.C., the caveman cartoon created by Johnny Hart and first published by the New York Herald Tribune in 1958.

I started investigating and I ended up contacting John Hart Studios, the group that owns the B.C. comic strip and manages the licensing of its comics. I was told by Brad Bushell over at John Hart Studios that Manzano Pest Management’s cartoon is NOT an image from the B.C. comic strip property, but that they appreciated my checking into it, because “proper copyright licensing of comic art is important, especially to us.”

B.C., linked with permission

Had my quick investigation determined that Manzano Pest Management had indeed used B.C.’s comic character without John Hart Studios’ permission, it would have been very unfortunate for Manzano Pest Management. Fortunately for Manzano Pest Management, this is not the case. But if they did, John Hart Studios could call upon a slew of remedies available under US Copyright law, including:

  • Actual damages and lost profits.
  • Statutory damages ranging from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
  • Reimbursement for all attorneys fees and court costs.
  • An injunction to stop the infringing acts.
  • Court enforced impound of the illegal works.
  • Imprisonment.

Oftentimes, this law firm is called to help defend businesses who inadvertently fall into the trap of utilizing the copyrighted material of a third-party without a proper license. This is very common when hiring inexperienced or unscrupulous web developers. Read our past blog article entitled, Images or photos on your website? Avoid a lawsuit!. But, there are many other ways to get into serious trouble:

  • Just because it’s on the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s free to use as you wish.
  • Linking to someone else’s content on the Internet (like I did to the B.C. comic above) and embedding on your website, even without copying it, is still copyright infringement (unless you have permission).
  • Using just a portion of someone else’s work product is still copyright infringement. You cannot take just a character out of a comic, and use that character without permission.
  • You cannot modify someone else’s work product, and call it your own. A “derivative work” is owned by the original author, even if your modification is vastly different.
  • Moving someone else’s work product to a different medium is still copyright infringement. Just because something is on the Internet, doesn’t mean you’re free to put it on a magnetic decal or a TV commercial.

At the end of the day, you’re free to come up with your own work product and use such work product as you see fit (beware of using material from contractors, though). But, if you see something you like, you must obtain permission and/or purchase proper copyright licensing, otherwise do not use it.

Reference to the B.C. comic strip used with permission. Thank you to John Hart Studios.

Law 4 Small Business, P.C. (L4SB). A little law now can save a lot later.

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