April 3rd, 2014

In Fight Over Anti-Gay Ad, Misappropriation Claims Are Dismissed

©Kristina Hill

©Kristina Hill

A federal court in Colorado has ruled that the unauthorized use of a gay couple’s engagement photo in a political attack ad was protected by the First Amendment. But the judge in the case rejected a request by defendants to throw out the photographer’s copyright infringement claims on fair use grounds.

Photographer Kristina Hill and her wedding photography clients, Brian Edwards and Thomas Privitere, sued conservative advocacy group Public Advocate of the United States (PAUS) in 2012 for unauthorized use of an engagement photo of Edwards and Privitere in political attack ads.

The ads, showing an image by Hill of Edwards and Privitere kissing each other, were part of a PAUS campaign to defeat two Colorado lawmakers who supported same-sex marriage.

Hill sued for copyright infringement because PAUS used the photo without her permission. Edwards and Priviter claimed misappropriation of their likeness for commercial purposes, in violation of their privacy and Colorado’s right-of-publicity laws.

gay-attack-adBut the court has thrown out the couple’s misappropriation claims on the grounds that the political ads were “primarily non-commercial,” and that they “reasonably relate to a legitimate matter of public concern”–same-sex marriage. Therefore, free speech rights of the First Amendment barred the couple’s misappropriation claim, federal judge Wiley Y. Daniel wrote in the decision.

However, Judge Daniel rejected a motion by PAUS to dismiss Hill’s copyright infringement on fair use grounds, ruling that the ads didn’t pass the standard four-pronged test for fair use.

The first factor, relating to the character and purpose of the unauthorized use,  went against the defendants for two reasons. Language of the copyright law protecting unauthorized use for educational purposes “suggests that the educational purposes contemplated by the statute’s drafters relates to schooling, not mailers circulated during an election,” the judge wrote.

Furthermore, he explained in his decision, “while the defendants placed the lifted portion [of the image] in a different background and placed a caption on the mailer, such actions cannot be characterized as ‘highly
transformative.’”

Other prongs of the fair use test also went against the defendants. For instance, the image is a creative work, not merely informational, which mitigated against a fair use finding, Judge Daniel said. And he rejected the defendants’ argument that they used only used a small part of Hill’s image, countering that they used the qualitatively most significant part, which shows the subjects kissing.

“I find that the plaintiffs have stated a plausible copyright infringement claim under the Copyright Act,” the judge concluded.

The ruling allows Hill to proceed with her copyright infringement claims, and was not a final decision on those claims.

A trial date has been set for January 26, 2015.

Related:
Anti-Gay Group Sued for Unauthorized Use of Photo in Attack Ads

Anti-Gay Group Pleads Fair Use, Free Speech in Infringement Case

June 6th, 2012

NM Wedding Photogs Can’t Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples, Court Confirms

New Mexico’s appeals court has confirmed that wedding photographers who refuse to shoot same-sex weddings violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

New Mexico Court of Appeals judge Timothy L. Garcia affirmed two previous rulings that Elane Photography of Albuquerque violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act when they refused to photograph the wedding of a same-sex couple on religious grounds.

The NMHRA prohibits businesses offering services to the public from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. The appeals court rejected Elane Photography’s arguments that forcing them to photograph a same-sex wedding under NMHRA amounted to a violation of their freedom of speech or freedom of religion protections.

The New Mexico Human Rights Commission originally ruled in 2008 that Elane Photography violated the state law. A trial court affirmed the NMHRC decision in 2010, triggering a second appeal to the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

The case arose after plaintiff Vanessa Willock inquired about hiring Elane Photography to photograph her commitment ceremony. She indicated it was a “same-gender” ceremony. The owners fo Elane Photograph–Elaine and Jonahtna Huguenin–responded that they photographed only “traditional” weddings. Willock followed up, asking Elane to clarify whether “it does not offer photography services to same-sex couples.” Elane photography responded, “Yes, you are correct in saying we do not photograph same-sex weddings.”

The next day, Willock’s partner sent an e-mail inquiring about photography for her wedding, without mentioning that it was a same-sex ceremony. Elane Photography responded by sending pricing information, indicating a willingness to travel to the wedding, and offering to meet to discuss options.

Willock filed a claim for discrimination with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, and won her case. The NMHRC awarded her $6,638 in attorney’s fees. She did not seek monetary damages.

The appeals court re-examined all of the arguments that Elane Photography presented  in its original appeal to a state trial court, and rejected them one after another.

For instance, Elane Photography argued that it refused to photograph a same sex-wedding, but that didn’t amount to discrimination against Willock because Elane Photography would have photographed her in other contexts, such as portrait sessions, for example. But the court said that amounted to “attempt[ing] to justify impermissible discrimination” by separating Willock’s actions from her status as a member of a protected class. The argument, the court went on to say, “is without merit.”

Elane Photography also argued that the NMHRA violated rights of freedom of expression protected by the US and New Mexico constitutions. The basis of that argument was that photography is an artistic expression protected by the First Amendment.

But the appeals court batted down that argument, too: “the NMHRA regulates Elane Photography’s conduct in its commercial business, not its speech or right to express its own views about same-sex relationships. As a result, Elane Photography’s commercial business conduct, taking photographs for hire, is not so inherently expressive as to warrant First Amendment protections.” The court explained that taking pictures of a same-sex wedding doesn’t by itself convey a (constitutionally protected) message of approval or disapproval of same sex marriage, the court explained. “[A]n observer might simply assume that Elane Photography operates a business for profit and will accept any commercially viable photography job.”

Similarly, Elane Photography argued that forcing it, under the NMHRA, to photograph a same-sex wedding would violate its freedom of religion protections. But the appeals court said the NMHRA doesn’t prevent the owners of Elane Photography from practicing their religion. And the court reasoned,  “Elane Photography voluntarily entered public commerce and, by doing so, became subject to generally applicable regulations such as the NMHRC. When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes [that] are binding on others in that activity.”

The owners of Elane Photography were not immediately available for comment. It is not clear whether they plan to appeal the latest ruling to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The full text of the ruling can be downloaded here.