Anyone who has ever rented a movie has probably read the riot act on copyright infringement, which appears under a colorful FBI anti-piracy seal (shown at right) and says this:

“The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work is illegal. 
Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain
is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by fines and federal imprisonment.”

Now that FBI seal and warning are available for use by any copyright holder–including photographers–who wants to use it to deter would-be infringers. Until earlier this week, it was legal only for members of five entertainment and software industry members to use the seal and warning. Those included big movie studios and video game producers.

In making the seal and warning available for use by all copyright holders, the FBI has eliminated fees and administrative requirements. Users can download the seal and post the warning free-of-charge, provided they follow the FBI rules for its use. One rule is that the seal and warning language must appear together. The seal also must be downloaded from this FBI Web page. The seal may not be animated, although it may be rendered in outline, grayscale, or black and white. And the seal and warning must not be used to imply the FBI’s endorsement of any photos, videos or other communications. (Complete rules and guidelines are available on the FBI’s Web site.)

It’s worth noting that just because a copyright holder posts the FBI’s anti-piracy notice doesn’t mean he or she can expect the FBI to investigate suspected infringements. Criminal infringement is defined in copyright law as primarily–though not exclusively–those infringements whereby someone undercuts the market for a movie or music recording by distributing bootleg copies before the official release.

For photographers, then, the benefit of the new FBI rule is that it offers an official law enforcement tool for warning people against infringement. And it does so by instilling an element of fear about dire consequences, like a sign on a chain link fence that says “Warning–premises protected by attack dogs,” even if there don’t happen to be any attack dogs actually present.

But that raises some question: Is the FBI warning overkill for photographers? Is the deterrent effect worth the risk of scaring off customers with a message that signals a certain level of unfriendliness? Or has copyright infringement become such a problem that more dire warnings are in order?


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