Giant Media Conglomerate Violates Copyright: Federal Judge Sides With Photographer

Giant Media Conglomerate Violates Copyright: Federal Judge Sides With Photographer

A fear shared by photographers worldwide is the possibility that their copyright could be violated by their photos being reposted elsewhere. For one social media user, that very scenario happened: his photo went viral, and several media outlets used it without credit or compensation.

Jonathan Otto, a vice president at Deutsche Bank, attended the wedding of friends, when President Donald Trump surprised the bride and groom by crashing their wedding, which was held at one of Trump’s golf courses in Bedminster, New Jersey.

During the appearance, Otto snapped a photo on his iPhone, which he sent to a fellow wedding guest, who then sent Otto’s photo to others, including a relative of the bride. The bride’s relative subsequently posted Otto’s photo to social media, where it was discovered by multiple media outlets including TMZ, CNN, The Washington Post, and The Daily Mail. Once Otto realized that his photo had been shared without his knowledge and afterward had gone viral, he started reaching out to media companies asking for credit and compensation.  

After realizing how many media outlets had reposted his photo lifted from Instagram, Otto decided to hire a lawyer, filing copyright infringement lawsuits against multiple agencies. Several of the agencies settled with Otto, but one, Hearst Communications, argued that their usage of the photo fell under “fair use.” One of Hearst’s many companies, Esquire, had used Otto’s photo in a since-deleted article entitled “President Trump Is the Ultimate Wedding Crasher.” In documented correspondence, Peter Wade, who wrote the article, had tried locating the original source of the photos, but ultimately ended up crediting the Instagram account of the bride’s relative where media found the photo. After Hearst Communications received the formal complaint of copyright infringement, they removed Otto’s photo, but still claimed fair usage.

Within U.S. copyright law, fair use maintains that brief portions of copyrighted materials may be quoted verbatim for purposes such as news reporting (among others). In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Woods sided with Otto stating in part: “stealing a copyrighted photograph to illustrate a news article, without adding new understanding or meaning to the work, does not transform its purpose — regardless of whether that photograph was created for commercial or personal use.” He goes on to say: “allowing a news publisher to poach an image from an individual’s social media account for an article that does little more than describe the setting of the image does not promote ‘the progress of science and useful arts.” This is good news for any photographer who has ever feared that their voice won’t be heard going up against someone like a media conglomerate. 

Copyright infringement has long been debated online with photographers and those who don’t see a problem using other’s photos. Much of the public seems to see copyright infringement as a gray area. Judge Woods' ruling may be the right step toward further defining what constitutes copyright infringement online. Otto now has a chance to have his case heard by a jury.

Though this is a welcome change for photographers, Woods cautions that his ruling is individual to Otto’s case, stating: “it is not unreasonable to think that the use could be considered fair in another matter involving a news publisher’s incorporation of a personal photograph.” However, it does give photographers hope that their rights can be protected against even large corporations.

Lead Image by via Pexels, used under Creative Commons.

Danette Chappell's picture

Danette is a Las Vegas-based wedding and elopement photographer who's photographed over 1,500 weddings and elopements in 14 different states. She has a passion for teaching business and helping other creative entrepreneurs succeed. She also loves cats, Harry Potter, and the occasional video game.

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Corporate Imperialism at it's best. This guy got lucky, I think. Most times these large corporations get away with it. Getty sells CC images like they're copyrighted works. They wound up sending a cease and desist to some guy who was the original photographer who took the shot! Greed never sleeps.

Ah, woman, my mistake. The song remains the same however. Greed never sleeps.

Unfortunately the bulk of the claim was dismissed in Federal Court. At the end of the day, she entered them into the Public Domain which, as it stands, allows companies like Getty to sell them. There was some minor settlement between them, but I couldn't find the details of that, but it certainly further enhances the notion that Getty is an organization to avoid.

It’s a step in the right direction. Is anyone else bothered by Ms. Highsmith giving images away? Does it not dilute the marketplace, reinforce the public’s misperception of Copyright law and encourage Corporates and individuals to violate an images creators Copyright at will?

Hard to say i just joined this group and have problems with infringement things cause i share at a few different sites and setting up google stuff my problem is mainly my last name

If you use other peoples photos to make money, ummm, I don't see what the confusion is. If you're a media house, you're reporting on the news of the day to make a profit. What would happen if a photographer sold the articles of your journalist as his/her own.