Media companies pay up for nicking snaps

Two media companies have been ordered to write a cheque for $US1.2 million to a freelance photojournalist for their unauthorised use of photographs he posted to Twitter.

The court found that 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.

The case is one of the first to make a ruling on how images that individuals make available to the public through social media can be used by third parties to make a bob or two.

According to ABC, it is likely to be the first time any other major digital licensor of photography, have been found liable for wilful violations of the US Copyright Act.

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

The court heard how an editor at AFP discovered Morel’s photos through another Twitter user’s account and provided them to Getty. The snaps were widely distributed to Getty’s clients, including several television networks and the Washington Post.

The fine of $US1.2 million was the maximum statutory penalty available under the Copyright Act. AFP had asked for the award to be limited to $US120,000. It was lucky, if they had nicked music, Big Content would have been after them for a trillion or two.

The Washington Post, CBS, ABC and CNN previously settled with the photographer for undisclosed amounts.

Getty sniffily told the court that Daniel Morel was asking the jury “to make him the best paid news photographer on the planet”.

Such a line may not have won the jury over, but it does reflect the attitude among big media companies that photographers and writers should be paid peanuts and should have no rights when big media companies steal from them.

AFP, blamed the infringement on an innocent mistake and said the Twitter user who posted the photos without attribution bore responsibility for the error. In fact it sued Morel, seeking a declaration it had not infringed on his copyrights after Morel accused it of improper use. Morel then filed his own counterclaims.

AFP then had a go at claiming it was allowed to steal the photos and Twitter’s terms of service permitted the use of the photos.

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.