23 Nov 2013

Media companies pay heavily for photo rip-off

6:19 pm on 23 November 2013

A US federal jury has ordered two media companies to pay $US1.2 million ($NZ1.46m) to a freelance photojournalist for their unauthorised use of photographs he posted to Twitter.

The jury found Agence France-Presse and Getty Images wilfully violated the Copyright Act when they used photos Daniel Morel took in his native Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, Mr Morel's lawyer, Joseph Baio, said.

The ABC reports that the case is one of the first to address how images that individuals make available to the public through social media can be used by third parties for commercial purposes.

"We believe that this is the first time these defendants, or any other major digital licensor of photography, have been found liable for wilful violations of the Copyright Act," Mr Baio said in an email.

Lawyers for AFP and Getty did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Best-paid photographer

US District Judge Alison Nathan, who presided over the trial, ruled in January the two companies were liable for infringement.

An editor at AFP discovered Mr Morel's photos through another Twitter user's account and provided them to Getty.

The infringement was blamed on an 'innocent mistake'

The photos were then widely disseminated to Getty's clients, including several television networks and the Washington Post.

The trial was held solely to determine the amount of damages for Mr Morel, based on whether the jury found AFP and Getty wilfully infringed on his copyrights.

The $US1.2 million was the maximum statutory penalty available under the Copyright Act, Mr Baio said. AFP had asked for the award to be set at $US120,000.

Several news outlets that published Mr Morel's images previously settled with the photographer for undisclosed amounts, including the Washington Post, CBS, ABC and CNN.

During the trial Marcia Paul, a lawyer for Getty, said Mr Morel was asking the jury "to make him the best paid news photographer on the planet".

AFP filed the lawsuit in 2010 against Mr Morel, seeking a declaration it had not infringed on his copyrights after Mr Morel accused it of improper use.

Mr Morel then filed his own counterclaims.

AFP had initially argued that Twitter's terms of service permitted the use of the photos.

But Judge Nathan found in January that the company's policies allowed posting and "retweeting" of images but did not grant the right to use them commercially.