As photographers, we all get annoyed when our images are being used without permission, and taking legal action is, for most of us, simply not a viable option. However, that might be changing as one law firm has discovered a means of making companies pay for even the smallest infringements. With that in mind, when does seeking compensation for copyright violations cross a line, and actually become a money-making exercise for a law firm whose motives are questionable? Meet Richard Liebowitz, the lawyer who has filed hundreds of lawsuits on behalf of photographers in the last two years, and is upsetting the legal industry in the process.
Copyright violations are regular features on the Fstoppers front page, whether it's Instagram freebooting, Tony and Chelsea Northrup suing an Australian company and finding the whole experience incredibly frustrating, or small photographers allegedly seeing their work stolen by huge companies without credit or compensation. While these instances make the headlines, the vast majority of infringements are so small and innocuous that doing anything more than sending a threatening email involves far too much time and expense — not to mention stress. The prospect of a legal battle is prohibitively expensive, and any settlement would often be for a sum that would never be worth the effort.
But what if it were possible that, with the right lawyer on board, even the smallest copyright infringement could be worth a settlement of tens of thousands of dollars? Suddenly, indifferent editors, lazy subeditors, and naive interns could be liable for very expensive lawsuits, potentially bringing a dramatic change to how images are published editorially online. The approach — pioneered by controversial lawyer Richard Liebowitz — is surprisingly simple.
Say an image that could have been licensed for $10 has instead been used by a company without the photographer's permission. This happens thousands of times every day, by small companies oblivious to copyright law, and large online platforms who perhaps are often happy to ignore the need for permission for the sake of expediency and dwindling budgets. On behalf of the photographer, Liebowitz's law firm would contact that company and immediately offer to settle for, say, $30,000. The offending company knows that the cost of going through the courts would quickly exceed that sum and agrees to settle, perhaps not for $30,000 but for a price that is vastly greater than the $10 that could have been spent on a license.
Many photographers would jump at the chance to have Liebowitz represent them, and few would sympathize with the defendants or the legal system that has to deal with what has been described as "frivolous litigation." As discussed in this in-depth piece — entitled Why Every Media Company Fears Richard Liebowitz — by Justin Peters writing for Slate.com, one judge called Liebowitz a "copyright troll" whose ethics are questionable.
Liebowitz argues that he's simply standing up for the rights of countless photographers who, until now, have found it impossible to fight against a legal system that is not suited to those who cannot afford to take on huge fees in order to fight for their own intellectual property. As his website states, his firm is "passionate about helping the artistic community." Others argue that Liebowitz is a ruthless opportunist who is exploiting a system, wasting the time of courts, and deploying questionable tactics that have little respect for accepted legal practices.
I'd urge anyone with an interest in copyright to read Peters' article (and for anyone unfamiliar with legalese, "rules of discovery" are the exchanges between prosecution and defense that allow both sides to be prepared ahead of trial).
Suing for copyright violations may have just become a viable option for those who previously felt shut out by a system that is typically reserved for the rich and powerful, and our industry may now have the opportunity to take revenge against unscrupulous companies that demonstrate scant regard for the artistic integrity of photographers.
(Side note: Unlike some other photography news websites, Fstoppers has rigorous editorial standards that require that all images are sourced legally.)
Lead image via Pexels.