Photographers and stock photo agencies have filed dozens of lawsuits against textbook publishers in recent years, alleging reproductions of photos the far exceed the limits of usage licenses. Courts have ruled in favor of photographers in many of the cases. Robert Frerck, for instance, won summary judgment this month on his copyright claims against Pearson Education, and won a settlement from McGraw-Hill last May on another claim. Despite all the claims and settlements, new claims continue to surface.
Photographer Joel Gordon recently filed his third copyright infringement lawsuit this year against a textbook publisher. The first two claims were against McGraw-Hill and Pearson Eduction; both cases are still pending. Gordon alleges in his newest claim, against Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), that between 1990 and 2008, he granted photo usage licenses that “were expressly limited by number of copies, distribution area, language, duration, and/or media.”
HMH ultimately violated those limitations, according to Gordon’s claim. He does not specify the extent of the alleged infringement, explaining that only HMH has that information. But he cites a previous claim against HMH by photographer Ted Wood, who had limited use of his photographs to 40,000 copies, only to discover that HMH had published more than 1 million copies. Wood won his case on summary judgment.
Gordon goes on to cite another 25 claims of copyright infringement against HMH, and he accuses the publisher of having a business model “built on a foundation of pervasive and willful copyright infringement [that] deprived Gordon and hundreds of other photographers and visual art licensors of their rightful compensation and unjustly enriched HMH.”
He is seeking unspecified monetary damages, and an injunction to bar the publisher from further use of his photographs.
Attorney Maurice Harmon of Harmon & Seidman LLC, the lawfirm that represents Gordon, Frerck and many other photographers for claims against textbook publishers, explained via e-mail why these types of claims persist, and how photographers who believe their copyrights have been violated by textbook publishers can protect themselves.
PDN: Why do these claims by photographers against textbook publishers continue to trickle out?
Maurice Harmon: Photographers have only gradually come to realize their photographs have been infringed. Once they know of the individual infringements, the photographers have three years to file a case.
PDN: Do any publishers make good-faith efforts to settle the claims before photographers sue, or before claims go to trial?
MH: That varies greatly—but we always try to negotiate a fair settlement at every stage and 98% settle before trial.
PDN: What must a photographer be prepared to endure, in terms of an investment of time and money, and/or mental anguish—to take on a textbook publisher with one of these claims?
MH: That also varies greatly. Some cases are resolved quickly without anything more than sending us the invoices. Other cases require more documents and a deposition. We advance all expenses, so there is no out-of-pocket cost to the photographer.
PDN: What is required for a photographer to make a strong claim?
MH: Invoices/licenses with terms that identify the specific licensed photographs that limit the uses a publisher can make of those images. Each photograph must also have been registered or can be registered with the Copyright Office.
PDN: What can photographers expect to recover if they win in court?
MH: That depends on the extent of the unauthorized uses, the license terms and conditions, the registration status of the photographs, etc., but it has proven to be well worth our —and the photographers—time.
PDN: If a photographer never registered his or her image copyright, or registered after a textbook publisher misused them, does that make an infringement claim more difficult than it’s worth? [editor’s note: Filing registration before a proven infringement makes copyright holders eligible for statutory damages, which are often much higher than actual damages.]
MH: Sometimes, but not always—it depends on the number of infringements after registration and the license terms and conditions.
PDN: Aren’t these claims subject to a statute of limitations? When is it too late to make a claim?
MH: The photographer has three years from the date he or she knew, or reasonably should have known, about the specifics of the infringement to file a case.
PDN: What percentage of these claims are successful? What are the most common reasons they fail—ie, they’re dismissed by a court, or a photographer recovers little or nothing in the end?
MH: The cases we bring have all been successful unless the plaintiff is determined by the Court to lack standing; that is, to lack ownership of the photographs.
PDN: How have textbook publishers changed their license agreements to avoid these claims in the future?
MH: The textbook publishers are now demanding rights so broad it is almost impossible to overrun the license.
PDN: What’s your parting advice to photographers who license images to textbooks?
MH: Act immediately to find out and protect your rights.
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