Creator Spotlight with Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

For this week’s creator spotlight, we are highlighting Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts!

Explain what your organization does and tell us about your role.

Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts is a nonprofit legal aid organization that has been providing pro bono attorney referrals for individual artists and arts & cultural organizations in the greater Philadelphia area for over 40 years. By providing members of the arts community with free consultation, representation and educational services on arts-related legal matters, PVLA seeks to enable the growth and vitality of the creative sector in our region.

Since the organization was founded in 1978, PVLA has served countless independent artists and smaller arts organizations who otherwise would not be able to afford legal services. PVLA has also had a hand in preserving and protecting several notable Philadelphia arts installations and institutions, including:

What is your (and your organization’s) interest in copyright law? 

Copyright issues lie at the center of many PVLA pro bono projects, and a large portion of our clients requesting assistance in registering, licensing and enforcing copyright protection over their creative works. As such, PVLA works to remain as up-to-date as possible on developments in copyright law, and recruits heavily for volunteers from the copyright and IP divisions at the firms in our region.

How does your organization and/or its constituents rely on copyright law to support their livelihoods?

Without the ability to safeguard the ownership and control over their works, the livelihood of many of PVLA’s clients and constituents would be greatly diminished. By creating exclusive rights of reproduction, distribution and  performance, the Copyright Act allows artists to  prevent plagiarists and copycats from capitalizing on the creativity of others, ensuring that the original artists can obtain compensation and support for their creative labor.

If there was one thing that you wished the public understood about copyright, what would it be?

A large portion of PVLA’s clients seem to struggle with the concepts of joint authorship and copyright co-ownership. Artists engaging in collaboration with others on a particular artistic or creative project should always bear in mind the contributions of group members and the effect that this might have on ownership of copyright in the finished product.

A good way for artists to avoid confusion regarding copyright ownership of a collaborative work is to discuss and record expectations and understandings about authorship among all the contributors at the outset of the project in a written agreement. While some artists may view this as uncomfortable or disruptive to the collaboration or the creative process, such contracts can often serve to clarify ownership rights among the artists, helping to avoid costly copyright litigation or disputes over royalty payments when the project is over. PVLA encourages artists to seek the assistance of an attorney in preparing these authorship agreements.

What is your organization’s biggest copyright-related challenge?

One of the biggest challenges that PVLA volunteers face with regard to copyright law lies in obtaining meaningful enforcement of copyright protection for smaller independent artists in the digital age. While advances in technology used to reproduce and transmit creative works have made it easier for artists to share and distribute their artwork to a wider audience, it has also made it easier for others to infringe on the copyright in those works.

For the majority of PVLA’s clients, whose financial means and resources are substantially limited, the prospect of policing the internet for infringing copies of their work is both a daunting and altogether unrealistic one. In many cases the artist’s only recourse against such acts of infringement is to issue a notice-and-takedown request to the website owner, which can leave many artists feeling dissatisfied. Finding a way to help artists feel secure in the protection of their creative works can be challenging in light of these modern challenges.

If there was one aspect of copyright law that you could change, what would that be and how would you change it?

As indicated in the response above, the cost of effectively enforcing copyright protections can often be prohibitively expensive or time consuming for many independent artists. While PVLA and other VLA programs across the country can remove some of these barriers to copyright enforcement by providing free legal representation to artists, there are many inherent obstacles built into our system of copyright laws  that make it harder for individual artists to address infringement of their works. Some examples include the difficulties of policing online infringement and the high cost of federal copyright litigation.  If given the chance to amend copyright law, PVLA would seek to build in stronger protections and mechanisms for under-resourced artists to enforce copyright in their creative works.  This would include reducing the costs associated with copyright litigation and providing more meaningful relief and assistance to artists in preventing or addressing online infringement.

Ryan W. Morris is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

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