Reknown Artist John T. Unger found himself under legal attack after a copycat artist tried to usurp his copyright claim to his original work. After mounting his defense, it became apparent that this was going to take more time and money then originally thought. John turned to his peers and a growing audience of social media to send a message of hope to other artists who have had the same happen to them and to ask for resources to take the fight to the end. He discusses some of the points of the case and its resolution with Damien Allen on today's program.
Announcer: Today’s program is brought to you by the attorneys at Traverse Legal, PLC, a global law firm specializing in Internet law, Trademark infringement, Copyright Infringement, Cybersquatting, On-Line Defamation, Non-Compete & Trade Secret Law and Complex litigation. If you have a legal matter arising on the web, Contact one of Traverse Legal’s internet lawyers today to learn how these innovative attorneys are changing the way law is practiced. Welcome to Traverse Legal Radio. Now here’s your host, Damien Allen.
Damien Allen: Good afternoon and welcome to Traverse Legal Radio. My name is Damien Allen, and today I am on the phone with John T. Unger of John T. Unger Studios of Mancelona, Michigan. John is an artist who makes artisanal firebowls. Good afternoon and welcome to the program, John.
John T. Unger: Hi, Damien. Glad to be here.
Damien Allen: It’s a pleasure to have you today, sir. Now, recently, you were involved in a case, a little piece of litigation, where a competitor decided to copy some of your designs for your artisanal firebowls and then sue you to make you stop using your own designs, basically run you into the ground, and, of course, he tried to do this in federal court. I understand you had a kind of unique model for funding your defense.
John T. Unger: Yeah. I mean, we fought it out of pocket for a long time, and I felt like it was very important to do that. Then when we got to the point where we really couldn’t carry the cost of the campaign anymore, we took it to the internet and were able to raise a significant amount of both awareness and money for our case. That really turned the balance in our favor, and we were able to settle out of court and achieve the goals that we had, which were basically to protect our designs and keep anyone else from using them. I think, one of the things we should touch on is that going into litigation like this it’s really important to understand what your goals are. We didn’t receive any damages or legal fees, so we’re still out the money that we spent, but our primary goal was to protect the intellectual property and to protect the rights of other artists. We didn’t want the case to set a bad precedent that would affect other artists.
Damien Allen: And copyright infringement is something that artists, of any sort, have to deal with. When you took it to the internet, what did you do on the internet in order to fund this?
John T. Unger: Initially, what I did was I wrote a very long post on my website, on my blog, that described what was happening to me and why it was important for other artists and other people to care about, how people could help us raise money, how they could help us raise awareness, how the lawsuit affected others, and what I was doing myself and had already done before asking for help. And I think in a case like this where you’re going to try and raise funds over the web, the most important thing to do, once you figure out what your goals are, is to figure out what the story is, what questions people are going to naturally want answers to, making sure those are answered in the copy that you write. Supporting documentation is really good. I included a PDF link to the lawsuit. I included PDF links to the actual copyright certificates for our designs. That way, the more people know, they’re not going to read the whole thing necessarily, but if they see that everything is there, then when they ask questions you can say well, it’s right there. Because you never know how people are going to react to a story. There are some people who just really think copyright is only for corporations and is just plain evil, and they’re going to attack any pro-copyright stance, so you need to have answers for those people. Another thing that’s really important to do is take the time to really write a compelling story. You don’t want to use actionable language. You don’t want to call the other party names or any of that, but it’s okay to use strong language that’s based on fact or clearly labeled as opinion but that explains how you feel about it and why you think it’s important. Recently, when I was talking to somebody else who’s planning to organize a campaign, some of the best advice I have on this matter is if it does take off, you’re going to get a ton of email. I was getting 300 emails a day at the peak of the frenzy, and you need to be able to respond to all of those. Many of them are going to require that you actually write a personal email back that addresses whatever somebody said, but if you have a lot of well-written boilerplates for the thank you’s and for the thank you for the support and this is what we’re going to do, that kind of thing, if you have that stuff written in advance, which we didn’t, it will save you an immeasurable amount of time and then you can personalize the boilerplate so that it actually addresses each individual email a little more personally. Another thing that we did is in the how you can help raise awareness section. In terms of fundraising, we had two things going on. I had a sale on certain models of the firebowls, and I also developed a whole new line of 600 sculptures that were available through a website called kickstarter.com, which is a fundraising website that the people don’t get billed unless you raise your target goal. Our target goal was $5,000; we raised $10,000 in a little over a week with that. So, have a clear and easy way for people to contribute funds. Make it really clear that if you’re not a not for profit, these are not tax deductible, and you really have to be very clear about that. And then, in terms of raising awareness, I had a numbered list of ways they could do that, and I should probably just read it to you because it’s not on the web anymore.
Damien Allen: Sure.
John T. Unger: But it was: 1. If you have a blog, please write a post and link to this page, feel free to quote as much of this post as you like or to write about it in your own words. It is important to stick to the facts and avoid derogatory language. 2. If you know any journalist or bloggers who would be interested in this story, please send them a link and ask them to help. 3. Use Twitter, Facebook forums and other social networks to help spread the story. 4. If you are an artist and use Etsy, 1000markets or ArtFire, please tell other artists about this case in the forums there. 5. If you have an email newsletter, consider sharing a link to this story with your mailing list. 6. Tell your friends. 7. Email this post to a friend, which was a live link. 8. Throw a benefit party to help raise awareness and funds. 9. Alert your local arts counsel, library or schools. 10. Be creative, which is sort of the dangerous one. Some people were a little too creative, and I had to write another follow-up post saying, no, really, we have to keep everything about above board. And you do. But I think one thing I would have done a little bit differently, I would…we had the long post that really went into detail and was more emotional and was more of the story. We had press releases which were much shorter and dryer and just to the facts. If I were ever to do this in the future, I would, for instance, write ten different tweets that people could use on Twitter that were sort of approved language. I would write some stuff specifically for Facebook, specifically for forums, because people don’t know what to write themselves and sometimes they overstep or get things wrong. So if you provide them a really easy way to participate without having to work real hard, you’re going to be a lot more successful and the message is going to be a lot cleaner and clearer. I think that’s probably one of the strongest points I would urge people to do in a situation like this is, is have a prepared copy that people can share. Another thing that you need to know….let’s describe a little bit of the process of what happens. So, I wrote the blog post. I put it up at 6:00 pm on a Monday, when typically the internet is pretty dead, and I chose that time because I wanted to have a good eight hours or so for the story to spread before the opposing counsel asked us to take it down, because I had a feeling they were going to do that. And they did, and we said we have free speech rights, and, you know, we do. But what was interesting and totally unexpected was I figured the only people who were really going to care we’re going to be friends and clients and people who knew me by reputation on the internet. Some of those friends are pretty famous bloggers, so I thought the story might spread. But, what I did when I wrote the post was it wasn’t all about me. I really was concerned about other artists’ rights and I still am. And so, I made it about a bigger issue than just myself. Because let’s be honest, no matter who we are, most people don’t care that much. You need to make your story be about something bigger than yourself, and if you do that, you need to really be prepared to give back somewhat as a result of that. You have to really be responsible to the position you’ve taken. So, in my case, I said that if we raised more money than we needed for the case, which we didn’t, we would start a not for profit and do a national as opposed to a state-based legal aid for artists, a national one. And it turns out, that the reason that doesn’t already exist is because it really is a nontrivial problem to have a national not for profit. So, I think, what we’ll end up doing instead, is I’ve registered defendart.org, and it’s going to eventually be an information resource for other artists and creatives in a similar position. And we had a really hard time finding pro bono organizations, and we weren’t able to find one in Michigan that could help us because the funding for that was cut. What I want to do is collect all of the possible places people can look for help and all of the resources that are going to be useful for them and maybe some boilerplate cease and desist letters, stuff like that, that they can use, and I haven’t done that yet because I’m still kind of PTSD from the whole thing.
Damien Allen: How long was this legal siege?
John T. Unger: It was almost a year, and it ended up occupying probably 50% of my working hours for at least the second half of that. That’s something I can’t stress strongly enough to people in that position is it may not be worth fighting. You really have to give some serious consideration to whether you are up for the emotional realities of it and how important it is to you. For me, it was most important because people were confusing me and the other guy, and I’ve spent years online developing a reputation for being a good business person and a good person, and I was worried that I can’t control another person’s action so I’m not comfortable being mistaken for somebody else, no matter who that is. That was really my primary concern. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the precedent that it could set, and it was about making sure that people knew who they were talking to when they called.
Damien Allen: How long have you been doing this particular style of art and creating this product?
John T. Unger: Since 2005.
Damien Allen: So you’ve got basically now five years into this, and I understand trying to balance, is it emotionally worth going after this but I mean five years of time of creating art, creating a product, selling it worldwide and then to have somebody come four years after the fact and try to shut you down. To put a price on that, your work, your expertise, your artistic direction, your creativeness, how do you…?
John T. Unger: You know, that’s the thing too, right, is because my reputation on the whole is not just the firebowls, although it’s really interesting. Like, let me tell you a little story that does illustrate why this was so important to me. I meet people all over the country, and I’ll walk up to them and their looking at my face, and I introduce myself, and I say hi, I’m John T. Unger, and it’s surprising how many people have heard of me because of the internet, but what’s more interesting is then I hand them a card that has a photo of the Great Bowl of Fire on it, and a lot of people don’t recognize my face, a lot of people don’t recognize my name, but when they see my art work their like oh, I know who you are. And I would say probably 50% of the people once they see my artwork are like, oh, I actually know who you are, because that’s how much coverage I’ve had for this particular idea. And so that is really important to me. People recognize the art more than the name or the face or the person. But beyond that, too, the firebowls are not all I do. I also do software consulting, I own a radio show called ArtHeroesRadio.com that’s a business and marketing advice for artist. I give a lot back to the art community that way. And what I’m really most known for is being creative and for coming up with interesting solutions to difficult problems, and the firebowl is one example of that that’s one of the most well-documented supporting examples of that. And so that’s really important to me that people know, yeah I’m the guy that invented that, you know.
Damien Allen: Right.
John T. Unger: That was mine.
Damien Allen: And I’m also the guy that invented the way to defend somebody stealing it from me.
John T. Unger: You know, it’s just, you know, so, I think, I think, you know, you just, you have to plan ahead. The thing is it’s going to seem really urgent when it happens, and it is kind of urgent, but you do have a lot more time in litigation than you think you do, generally, I think. And when we put that up there at 6:00 pm on a Monday, a couple of our friends retweeted the tweet that I wrote about on Twitter, and then surprisingly, it got picked up by Warren Ellis who’s a UK comic book writer with a huge following and then Wil Wheaton, the actor from Star Trek who has, you know, I don’t know, at least a million and a half followers. And so they retweeted it, fans retweeted it and by the time I got up the next day, literally a million people had linked to my website on twitter over night. I mean, it was insane, and there’s been over 140-150 people who have blogged about it, and so what happened was my email just went through the roof, and like I said I had to answer that, I had to…I gave up answering comments on websites pretty quickly. It got written up in The Consumerist, which is a big deal. A lot of people came from there. But what happened was those first three days all I did was respond to emails and phone calls and twitter, and by the end of it, literally, my entire body was shaking with exhaustion, it looked like I had palsy. And had I had more of the boilerplate stuff so that I would have had to do less writing under high pressure, that would have been a lot easier to take, a lot easier to deal with. So, you know, there’s no guarantee that social media is going to make your story go through the roof, but if it does, it really, really, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be ready with the answers in advance, and what we did was, as I kept responding to email, I kept collecting the best written lines that described what we were doing and what we needed and what we planned to do in the future, and I finally kind of crafted something on the fly that answered most questions, and I would start with that and then edit it to match the other person’s needs. But the more of that you can have ready when you go, the better off you’re going to be.
Damien Allen: Well, I’d like to thank you very much for joining us today, John, and describing your situation and what you can do with social media to help your case out.
John T. Unger: Well, thanks for having me on the show, Damien.
Damien Allen: You’ve been listening to Traverse Legal Radio. We’ve been speaking with John T. Unger, my name is Damien Allen. Everybody have a great afternoon.
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