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Case Of First Impression Tests Rules For Using Photos On Internet

Internet lawyers as well as many different media outlets are watching the developments in a new case closely.  The case involves a wire service company, Agence France-Presse.  AFP is accused of copyright and other infringements for using photos taken by someone else in its coverage of the Haiti earthquake.  The case is testing the legal limits on how photographs can be used on the Internet without violating another’s rights to the photos.

In this particular case, AFP obtained the photos via a service known as TwitPic.  TwitPic allows Twitter users to easily upload and share photos rather than text-based tweets.  It is widely used by many Twitter users, and is probably the most well-known of such services.  The photos in question were taken by Daniel Morel, who captured what has been referred to as “iconic images” of the Haiti earthquake.  AFP used the photos in its own commercial service without proper credit or compensation to Morel.  Several news agencies, not just AFP, improperly credited the photos to another photographer and never paid Morel.

AFP filed a motion to dismiss the case against it, which was denied by U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley.  Judge Pauley wrote in his opinion that Twitter’s terms of use “does not clearly confer a right on others to re-use copyrighted postings.”  I have downloaded a copy of the judge’s opinion to the Cyber Box for those of you who wish to read it in full.

According to an article in paidContent.org, AFP’s fundamental position in the lawsuit remains unchanged—uploading pictures to a service like TwitPic makes them available for other parties to use.  AFP further contends that it is a widely accepted practice of using such photos.

This case has significant implications not just for major news outlets, but for anyone who uses graphic images on the Internet – bloggers for example.  Depending on how this case concludes, I could see many more lawsuits being filed against some rather unlikely defendants as lawyers seek to test how far this will go.  And, despite the current state of copyright law, it seems to me that we are in desperate need of a legal overhaul that addresses the new information-sharing regime.

For now, we will wait and track the outcome of AFP’s battle.

In the meantime, what do you think?  How do we ensure that an artist, author, photographer, etc. gets fair compensation for their works without possibly chilling and deterring the ability to freely share information via the Internet?  Here, we have a case brought by the individual photographer.  Consider, however, the lawsuits filed against Google Books…who filed them?  To my knowledge, the principal plaintiffs in those cases were not the creators of the books, but rather, large publishing houses seeking to protect their own pockets.  Is that what copyright laws were designed to protect?

Should there be some exceptions made if the individual using them does not receive compensation for their use?  Say, a mom blogger at the breakfast table who happens to use a protect image downloaded from something like Google Images.

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