Landmark Copyright Verdict Against Media Companies Serves as Cautionary Tale to All

In case you missed the headlines late last year, freelance photographer Daniel Morel was awarded a $1.2 million damage verdict against Agence France-Presse ("AFP") and Getty Images after it was found that they willfully infringed Mr. Morel's photos of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.   The verdict caught my attention given the fact so many clients have received demand letters from Getty in recent years alleging copyright infringement of a Getty photo.

The case is noteworthy primarily because the maximum statutory penalty available under the Copyright Act was awarded by the jury.  Also noteworthy were the facts of the case, which involved an initial Twitter posting of the photos and subsequent commercial media distribution of the same photos.  See a report by Law 360 of the verdict here; and a report by Reuters of the verdict here.   To see Daniel Morel's website, where a transcript from the trial is posted, click here.

Several news outlets reportedly settled with the photographer for undisclosed amounts, but AFP and Getty went to the jury with the damages question, which in hindsight was probably not the best tactical move, given the outcome.

As you might expect, AFP and Getty have already filed an appeal in the case, arguing that the verdict "constitutes a miscarriage of justice."  See the appeal filing here.

It is hard not to see the irony in the circumstances of a company, who in my opinion, is an aggressive enforcer of copyrights in photos, now finding itself on the wrong side of a verdict against a photographer also enforcing his copyrights in photos.  Moreover, it is ironic to see Getty raising outrage over the calculation of damages made by the jury, given the fact I often hear the same outrage voiced over the damage calculation Getty uses in its demand letters.

Clearly, this case serves as a cautionary tale to all who have ever taken photos off social media or the Internet and distributed them to third parties, or been tempted to do so.  Also, it serves as a good reminder to respect the rights of photographers in their photos, as they perform a valuable service in getting the news and images out to the world in a crisis, and they deserve to be able to make a living for their work.  Apparently even big media companies need to be reminded of this from time to time.  I think the jury verdict in this case probably gave them quite the wake up-call.




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