Public Outcry Stalls Lawsuit Over Portraits of Tucson Shooting Victim

Public criticism and a stinging statement from the family of a nine-year-old girl killed during the shootings in Tucson last month have led a portrait photographer to halt a copyright lawsuit–at least for now–against various media outlets. The photographer has also apologized to the girl’s family, and blamed the news media for “mischaracteriz[ing]” his intentions.

Last Friday, Tucson photographer Jon Wolf was poised to file a copyright claim against more than a dozen major media outlets for unauthorized use of his portraits of Christina-Taylor Green. But yesterday he wrote on his blog that because of a community outcry, “I have chosen to halt filing legal action in the hopes of reaching negotiated settlements with those that have used this image.”

Christina-Taylor Green died during the assassination attempt against Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on January 8. News organizations were in a “mass feeding frenzy to get a photograph of the child victim,” Wolf’s attorney, Edward Greenberg of New York, told PDN last week. He called the ensuing unauthorized use of Wolf’s images as “the most expansive infringement of a photographer’s copyright in history by far.”

Greenberg said the images were worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” with potential to generate income over several decades. He explained that the Green family had made three of Wolf’s copyrighted photographs available to news organizations after the January 8 shootings. The news organizations allegedly photographed the images, and distributed them without permission or payment in newspapers, magazines, online, and on TV.

Although he wouldn’t give details, Greenberg said he had negotiated settlements “with more than a few substantial and well-known web sites and publications.” But others would be named in the lawsuit, he said, including Associated Press, Time Inc, Fox News Network, New York Post, The New York Times, AOL, The Wall Street Journal and others.

Greenberg also said on Friday that the Green family “had executed a document saying that they will support [Wolf's] efforts to sue and raise money for charity. He has their full cooperation and consent to pursue these claims.”

But yesterday Tucson news outlets reported public outrage–including a statement the Green family issued yesterday to local media–over a perception that Wolf was trying to profit from a tragedy.

“Jon Wolf, as we have painfully learned, showed poor taste in his choice to litigate over the usage of his photograph of our little girl Christina-Taylor Green,” the family statement said. “Our intent was not to allow others to profit from the Jon Wolf image but to allow the media to portray our daughter in the best light possible and to tell her story. It is unfortunate that he has chosen to litigate over the use of his photograph at this time, or at all, in light of the fact that our family is still mourning and grieving the loss of our daughter.”

Wolf announced on his blog yesterday afternoon that he was halting the legal proceedings for now. He was not immediately available for comment, but said on his blog: “My intent from the beginning always has been to use the proceeds from my creative work to make a charitable donation in Christina Green’s memory…At no time did I intend to profit personally from this tragedy.”

Wolf says he will turn over to charity all proceeds from the use of the images that he’s collected to date. He added, “I truly and deeply regret the additional distress this matter has placed on the Green family, and I apologize for that.”

Greenberg declined a follow-up interview, but said in an e-mail message that “settlement negotiations are ongoing in an effort to avoid the filing of suit…we are refraining from filing suit at this time.”

8 Responses to “Public Outcry Stalls Lawsuit Over Portraits of Tucson Shooting Victim”

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  2. Frank Van Riper Says:

    Let me give you the perspective of someone who for more than 20 years was a reporter on the New York Daily News, then the largest newspaper in the country:
    Though I never had to do this myself, since I was a reporter back then, not a photographer, it was common, in the aftermath of tragedy, often involving children, for photographers to have to come up with ‘Studios’ for the next day’s paper. Most often this involved photographing the framed studio photograph of the late child that hung from a wall or stood on the mantle–often while a reporter was interviewing the bereaved family.
    Mark you: there was nothing underhanded or surreptitious about this. It was often done right out in the open with a formulations something like this, delivered respectfully, but matter-of-factly:
    “We are going to need a photograph of (Johnny or Mary) for the paper. Can we use this one? (Or: “we can just use this one.”)
    I can’t tell you how many times the parents were willing, if not eager, to let this happen. This may sound self-serving, since I have done interviews like this myself, but it is a way to honor the memory of the dead–to show, if you will, that the child’s life had merit because it was newsworthy–and the parents were happy, too, not to have to rummage around for a photo to give to the paper, especially one that they probably would not want to give up.
    This photographer’s lawsuit smells a little to me–and I can understand the hesitation of the family to join in the lawsuit.
    The fact that this guy wanted to contribute to a memorial fund or whatever still does not lessen the smell over what I suspect would be an unsuccessful lawsuit, thrown out of court on the grounds that publication of his (albeit copyrighted) image constitutes fair use under the first amendment.
    Put another way, if he had brought suit seeking huge damages for himself–not for a memorial fund–I suspect there would have been no sympathy shown this guy. He would have been seen as trying to profit from a huge tragedy.
    The memorial fund aspect of this–and I have to say I find his blog’s defense of it extremely off-putting–just obscures the issue.
    Note, too, that the fact that some news organizations have paid him merely shows, I think, an effort to make him go away. Frankly, I do not think they were in the wrong. The old cliche, ‘the public’s right to know’ includes putting a public face on an outrage like the Arizona shooting spree. In this case, the public face was that of a little girl in the wrong place at the wrong time.
    –Frank Van Riper, photographer, author, photography columnist, Washingtonpost.com (www.TalkingPhotography.com)

  3. Delvin Blanders Says:

    This is an unfortunate situation and I wonder if it could have been handled differently. At what point does the right to inform the public take precedence over the right of the photographer to control copy rights, and what are the implications if a judge were to claim this as “fair use”?

    Had this been any other situation, I’m sure there would not have been such a public outcry. If, for example, the person depicted in the photograph were the criminal and not the young victim.

    The news media who ran the young girl’s pictures, undoubtedly profited from her tragedy–albeit in an effort to inform their readers. Yet it makes one wonder how many of their shareholders will think of their next dividend check as blood money [the smell Mr. Van Riper was referring to in a previous post]. It also makes one think about third party photo distributors who collected research, licensing, and delivery fees associated with getting that picture to their clients. It also makes one wonder how far “fair use” extends. I could, for example, publish my own news magazine from pictures I’ve purloined from news media organizations, without subscription and without their consent, and argue that my right to inform the public takes precedence over their right to control copy rights.

  4. Interested Party Says:

    I’m all for photographers protecting their copyrighted work, but there are times when it would be more appropriate to find an alternative to bringing suit against outlets using the photo. When I was in high school, my best friend was killed in a motorcycle accident during his senior year. The photography studio that made his senior portraits made the negatives available to family and friends and made prints free of charge. One of the portraits was also used for the newspaper and obituary.

    Granted that circumstance is not on the same scale as the Tucson shooting, but common sense has to be applied in these cases.

  5. PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » Public Outcry Stalls Lawsuit Over ... Says:

    PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » Public Outcry Stalls Lawsuit Over ……

    [...]“Jon Wolf, as we have painfully learned, showed poor taste in his choice to litigate over the usage of his photograph of our little girl Christina-Taylor Green,” the family statement said. “Our intent was not to allow others … He was not immedia…

  6. mike penney Says:

    If the distribution of the crime victim’s picture (or use of the photo for an obituary of an aged deceased person) was simply “journalism” then photographers should probably go along to get along….

    However, given the current disrespectful attitude of media (all kinds) toward photographers’ rights to control their images AND the mutation of “journalism” into the circus solely dedicated to making a profit for a disinterested gigantic corporation I think photographers should pound on the media outlets for control AND a piece of the action.

    Look at it the other way… If you went out and used a piece of art belonging to one of the media outlets for something (like a poster, for example e.g. Obama) they will attempt to beat you into little pieces.

    Turnabout is fair play.

    A little more respect from media outlets toward the people who actually make photographs would go a long way.

  7. Fontaine Says:

    A professional photographer, in the business of taking photos, has the right to decide how his photos are used. If he did not get paid for the rights to publish his photos, then he needs to be. As for trying to profit from a tragedy- its not as though he caused the event nor did he initiate the usage of his photo. Can any other theft be justified by tragedy? Why should’nt he be allowed to earn his living by being compensated for his work?

  8. K Clarke Says:

    It could have been handled differently, but I am on the (minority, it seems) side of copyright, which is not necessarily the same as being for the photographer.

    Do you think for a second that if the Phoenix paper or the AP just happened to take a photo of the victim on the street a couple of days before (e.g., at a parade), they would not have raced to make media deals across the world (with a very prominent “©AP”)?

    Do you not think if someone put an AP or other news site post including that photo of the victim on their blog in the interest of furthering the information to the public, that the site would ram the full force of its legal team against the individual? (As someone above already mentioned.)

    Do you not think that these media companies wanted to publish the photo to sell more papers? From someone who has experience in those circles, the “public right to know” is often a hollow and deceptive victory cry.

    Fair use is actually a pretty constrained definition. And like Fontaine wrote, he has the right to decide how his photos are used.

    You can’t be for copyright “sometimes”, or “most of the time”. As most professional photographers would agree, it is usually a struggle to educate the public on this. (In my own country, a member of the government posted a newspaper article about himself on his government website, and then once contacted by the paper, claimed he didn’t realize it wasn’t fair use.)

    Power is what truly makes the world go round, and these huge companies would absolutely take advantage of their power to mischaracterize the reputation of an individual photographer…after all, he is “just a local studio guy.” It was large media companies that blatantly ripped off the freelancer that uploaded his Haitian earthquake pics off of Twitter (detailed in PDN), and then continue to spend hundreds of thousands in court rather than admit they stole, or at least pay him fairly and save themselves money in lawyer fees (that alone boggles the mind, but it is human nature to have difficulty admitting error).

    In a perfect world, the family and the photographer would have gotten together, with a lawyer, and established a trust that would handle all sales, rights, and distribution of the photo(s), and the proceeds would have been used for child scholarships, or gun control education, or a memorial, etc. But I’m sure the media companies took advantage of the family when they absolutely knew the copyright is with the photographer, most likely by telling them “the photo is yours” and “we want to honor your daughter’s memory”.

    Ask yourself this. Was the feeding frenzy to honor the daughter’s memory, or to be first with pictures of a victim in order to be first with sales?