There are many reasons why you might need a copyright lawyer. Imagine that you just wrote a book, and you want to apply for federal copyright protection on the manuscript. Or imagine that you posted a photograph on your website, and just received a letter from the photographer threatening to sue you. Or imagine that you wrote a piece of music and your bandmate stole it, and is now performing it solo.
Copyright lawyers can help you manage all of these situations. But how can you find the best copyright lawyer for your needs?
First, remember that copyright is one type of intellectual property law. Some intellectual property attorneys deal with issues that have nothing to do with copyright. For example, their practice might revolve around patenting inventions or suing trademark infringers. These attorneys might know a great deal about their specialties, but have a steep learning curve when assisting you with your copyright problem.
Moreover, although “copyright law” might sound like a narrow area of law, it is actually fairly broad. Some attorneys focus on intellectual property rights in connection with music; others defend book publishers from instances of infringement; still others work with fashion companies on protecting their designs.
Before you hire an attorney simply because he or she lists “copyright” on the firm website, consider the lawyer's experience. Has this attorney represented clients in your industry (such as publishing, visual arts, music, software, and so forth)? And has this attorney represented clients in your position (in other words, has the attorney only sued copyright infringers, when you need to be defended)?
Beyond just the industry, consider your specific legal issue. If you are suing someone, or being sued by someone, you need to hire a copyright litigator—that is, someone who regularly goes to court over copyright disputes.
If you want to register a copyright, or negotiate a copyright licensing deal, you need to hire a copyright attorney with more transactional experience. As you interview attorneys, you should ask whether their practice is predominately transactional or litigation-based.
Once you determine the specific type of copyright issue you have, and the type of lawyer that you need, how do you go about finding that person? There are a few ways you might identify an appropriate attorney.
First, if you know a general family attorney or business attorney or real estate attorney, ask for referrals. Attorneys tend to know one another within a given community, and will often refer work to specialists. The real estate lawyer who did your house’s closing last year might have gone to law school with a copyright expert who can assist you.
Second, ask for recommendations within your industry. For example, if you are a musician, you are probably friends or acquaintances with many other musicians. Ask around to see whom your colleagues have used in the past. Do they have horror stories about any particular lawyers? Or is there a name who keeps coming up as being excellent?
Third, even if you do not have a direct connection to a person who knows copyright lawyers, contact your local or state bar association. Bar associations are essentially professional associations of lawyers. They exist in all 50 states and in most major cities. Most bar associations are divided into committees of attorneys by practice area, and often list contact information for the attorneys on each committee online.
If you're having trouble imagining how you'll pay the lawyer's fees, consider nonprofit organizations. Groups like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts will provide free legal services to certain qualifying individuals or organizations. Not everyone will qualify, of course. They are designed to help non-profit arts organizations or low-budget artists, and should not be viewed as a substitute for retaining your own lawyer. However, in the right circumstance, they might be able to assist you.
Finally, Nolo’s Lawyer Directory offers an easy-to-use online directory of lawyers, organized by location and area of expertise.