August 21st, 2014

Has a Textbook Publisher Trampled Your Copyrights? There’s a Solution for That.

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.

Related:
Appeals Court Upholds Copyright Infringement Damages Award to Louis Psihoyos
Judge Refused to Let Book Publisher Weasel Out of Copyright Lawsuit
 After Flouting Print Run Limits, Publishers Face Dozens of Lawsuits

March 20th, 2014

Appeals Court Says Streamlined Photo Copyright Registration Procedures Are Legal

A federal appeals court has re-instated stock photo agency Alaska Stock’s copyright infringement claim against textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin, reversing  a lower court decision to dismiss the case on the grounds that the stock agency had registered its images improperly.

The decision means that Alaska Stock now gets the opportunity to try its copyright claims in court.

The case is a also victory for photographers and other copyright owners because it upholds a streamlined process for registering images in bulk as a collected work. Specifically, the court affirmed the authority of the US Copyright Office “to grant registration to individual stock photographs within a collection where the names of each of the photographers, and titles for each of the photographs, were not provided on the registration forms.”

“The livelihoods of photographers and stock agencies have long been founded on their compliance with the Register’s reasonable interpretation of the [copyright] statue,” the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said in its decision. “Denying the fruits of reliance by citizens on a longstanding administrative practice reasonably construing a statute is unjust.”

The ruling came in the case of Alaska Stock v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which began in 2009 when Alaska Stock sued the publisher for using Alaska Stock images well beyond the scope of the original usage license. In particular, the publisher “greatly exceeded” the print run limit of the license it had paid for.

Houghton Mifflin challenged the claim on the grounds that Alaska Stock had improperly registered the images in question. (Federal law requires valid registration of any copyrighted work that is the subject of a federal copyright claim.)

Alaska Stock had registered the images in bulk, as a catalogue, listing names of only three photographers, and describing the images in general, but not listing a title for each photograph.

The district court agreed with Houghton Mifflin that Alaska Stock’s registration was “defective” because the agency had not provided the names of each of the photographers and the titles of each of the photographs in its registration application, as required “unambiguously” by law, according to the district court decision.

But the appeals court overturned that decision because it conflicted with a long-standing practice by the Register of Copyrights, undercut the legal authority of the Register of Copyrights to establish procedures of copyright registration–and amounted to a misreading of copyright law by the district court.

The appeals court noted that for more than 30 years, owners of collected works–notably magazines and newspaper publishers–have been legally registering both the collected work and the individual underlying works with one application, without listing all the authors or titles of the individual works. To do otherwise would put an undue burden on applicants and the Register of Copyrights, the court noted

The one caveat to that practice is that applicants for registration must own copyright to the collected work and all the underlying works, the appeals court noted.

In its decision, the appeals court also validated a 1995 letter from the Register of Copyright to the Picture Agency Council of America (PACA) prescribing a method for registering large catalogues of images. “The Register agreed that a stock agency could register both a catalog of images and the individual photographs in the catalog in one application if the photographers temporarily transferred their copyright to the stock agency for the purposes of registration,” the appeals court said in its ruling.

Alaska Stock did exactly that, asking its photographers to transfer copyrights to the agency for the purpose of registering the images in bulk, and then filing a registration application for a CD catalogue of images. (The agency arranged to transfer copyrights back to the photographers after the registration was completed.)

In reviewing the registration requirements spelled out under copyright law, the appeals court said the law requires only that copyright owners provide a title of the collected work and a description (not titles) of the underlying works. Alaska Stock met that requirement, the appeals court said, by registering the images as a collected work called “Alaska Stock CD catalog 4,” and by identifying the underlying works as “CD catalog of stock photos” on its registration form.

The appeals court said the statue requires the name of the author of “the work”–ie, the collected work, not every author of the the individual works. The stock agency met the requirement by listing itself [Alaska Stock] as the author of the collective work, the appeals court said.

The appeals court noted that Houghton Mifflin’s arguments have prevailed in several district court decisions in other similar cases, “but we do not agree with them,” the appeals court added.

In those cases, the courts threw out copyright claims because the registrations were “defective,” i.e., they did not list all the image authors and image titles.

Three of those cases were filed in the Ninth Circuit. One case was settled; two others are under appeal, and will probably be re-instated because of the Alaska Stock decision. “Judges in the Ninth Circuit have to follow the ruling of the court of appeals” in that circuit, says Maurice Harmon, who represents the plaintiffs in all the cases, including the Alaska Stock case.

A fourth case is on appeal in New York, which is in the Second Circuit. Judges there are not bound by the Ninth Circuit decision in the Alaska Stock case. But Harmon believes judges in other circuits “will take it into consideration.

“We think that at the court of appeals level, we’re starting to get momentum for all of these cases,” he adds.

Harmon also says, “It galls me that these [textbook] publishers, who use compilation registrations [to protect their own works], would turn their backs on the very thing they rely on to win a technical victory to take the courthouse keys away from photographers.

“But they know that once a photographer gets in the door of the courthouse, the publishers are not going to get away with this copyright infringement.”

Related:
After Flouting Print Run Limits, Publisher Faces Dozens of Lawsuits