September 8th, 2014

Robert Frerck on How to Track Down Copyright Infringements in Textbooks

After publishing our story about the dozens of lawsuits filed against textbook publishers for reproductions of photos that far exceed the limits of usage licenses, we heard from travel photographer Robert Frerck. He won a summary judgment in August on his copyright infringement claim against Pearson Education, and a settlement last May from McGraw-Hill on a separate infringement claim.

“It seems that once a publisher used your image with a valid license, you were fair game for any additional products that they might fancy to produce,” he told PDN via e-mail. In the following excerpt of our exchange with Frerck, he touches on the risk of suing clients, then shares his advice and strategies for tracking down infringements by textbook publishers.

PDN: Was it difficult to bring suit against a client?
Robert Frerck: I had been doing substantial business with all of these publishers for decades, so it was a very difficult decision. I was aware that if I proceeded with this action I might be be putting an end to several profitable client relationships. However I was also very disturbed that these companies had not been truthful in their actions with me. Over [many] years I had met many of their picture editors personally and we had developed a relationship based on trust and I considered many of them to be personal friends. So I felt betrayed when I learned that these companies were knowingly cheating me as a standard business practice. I think that in the end that was the deciding factor in persuading me to pursue legal action.

PDN: What has the process been like for you? Have you ever questioned whether it was worth the headache?
RF:  It has been very frustrating at times. However, it has also been rewarding to see that this information has come out and that my position has been vindicated. The bottom line is that it has been well worth the effort, from both a “securing justice” and a financial perspective.

PDN Are there any particular lessons you’ve learned from your experience pursuing these claims? Any advice you’d give other photographers who might be considering in a similar position?
RF: Fortunately, I still had almost two decades of past invoices and these were coupled with their respective purchase orders and related communications. Most importantly the language of these invoices very clearly stated: what reproduction rights I was licensing and what I was not licensing. So this was sufficient to make a case. However I then decided to expand my data collection in a somewhat different way from other photographers in similar cases. Rather than simply looking at past invoices and making those invoices the substance of my claims, I decided to purchase almost all of the textbooks that were indicated by my invoice record[s].

By actually having the textbooks in my hands, I discovered many things that were not revealed simply by looking at the invoices. For example there were numerous uses of my images that were not mentioned on the purchase orders and consequently never invoiced or licensed. Where only one use was indicated on the purchase order, I might find a second or third use of an image in the actual text (for example, a second use in the table of contents). I also found images that were indicated for use as a 1/4 page on the purchase order but in the text were used as a double page chapter opener, a mistake with a huge impact on the bottom line.

Another interesting thing I discovered – and for this I bless Google and the internet and companies like Amazon: I would find the title of the text that was listed on my purchase order/invoice but then I would also find that there was an “International Edition” of that same title; or a “Spanish Language Edition” or a newer “expanded edition” or a “CD or internet website use” that I had never licensed. Many of my claims against publishers are for uses in products that were never licensed in the first place. It seems that once a publisher used your image with a valid license, you were fair game for any additional products that they might fancy to produce. Unless you were actively spending countless hours researching these titles on the internet you would never have been aware that this was occurring. I guess that is what the publishers were counting on.

In the final analysis, pursuing this type of litigation is not for everyone; first it helps to have reliable records and a lot of patience and perseverance. However, in a way it is like the unraveling of a good mystery and you are trying to discover all of the wrinkles in the plot. You must also be prepared to put up with a lot of BS from the defense lawyers, but my lawyers have been great in countering them. And most importantly, remember that the truth will be found out in the end.

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

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