May 7th, 2012

Morel Releases More Evidence Against AFP, Getty in Copyright Case

Photographer Daniel Morel, who had his exclusive Haiti earthquake images ripped off by Agence France-Presse and Getty more than two years ago, has released more evidence in his claim against the two wire services in his ongoing fight for justice.

The new details, which are part of a motion Morel filed last month asking the judge to hold Getty and AFP liable for infringement, were sent by Morel’s lawyer to PDN and several others. They are neatly summarized by Jeremy Nicholl on The Russian Photos Blog.

Nicholl leads off by quoting an internal e-mail from AFP deputy photo editor for North America Eva Hambach:  “AFP got caught with its hand in the cookie jar, and will have to pay.” Ten days after Hambach wrote that to a colleague in March, 2010, AFP slapped Morel with a lawsuit to gag him and punish him for publicly accusing AFP of violating his copyrights.

To re-cap, Morel–a native of Haiti and a former AP photographer–was in Haiti at the time of the January, 2010 earthquake. He posted exclusive images of the destruction on his Twitpic account less than two hours later. The images were immediately stolen and re-posted under the name of another Twitter user. AFP picked up the images and distributed them under the false credit through its own image service and through Getty. They did that even though editors at both companies knew that the images were Morel’s, and that they did not have his permission to distribute them.

Morel objected. His agent, Corbis, sent take-down notices to Getty and AFP, but it took AFP two days to issue a kill notice. And when they did, they told clients and partners to kill images credited to Morel, but not the identical images that had been sent out initially under the false credit. Getty allegedly didn’t purge the images with the false credits, and continued to distribute them.

With Morel continuing to insist that his copyrights had been violated, AFP sued, and Morel fought back. Getty and AFP have done their best to wear Morel down by dragging out the process, but the photographer has refused to give up. He has already won an important decision against AFP, which argued that anything posted on Twitpic is free for the taking, according to the Twitpic terms of service. The court summarily rejected that defense.

Meanwhile, Getty continues to try to hide behind the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The company says, in effect, that it was merely a passive provider of server space to AFP so it shouldn’t be held liable as an infringer. On the grounds that Getty is AFP’s partner and an active marketer and distributor of AFP images, Morel is asking the court to reject Getty’s DMCA defense.

What it boils down to is a case of two companies bullying a photographer they got caught stealing from. AFP and Getty aren’t the first to move images without permission in a cutthroat business that has a history of steal-now-and-apologize-later tactics. What’s unusual is the unwillingness of the two companies to own up to their ethical lapse and legal breach by apologizing and quietly paying to settle it.

We contacted Hambach to ask her about the internal repercussions of her “cookie jar” e-mail. Was she taken to the woodshed for it? Is there any sign that AFP is taking stock of its policies with regard to recouping images? “I can’t talk about this now,” she said, ending the conversation at the mention of her e-mail.

A hearing on Morel’s motion for summary judgment is scheduled for July. The judge is unlikely to issue a decision before fall.