Thursday, April 8, 2010

Commercial Photographer Dilemmas in Protecting Copyright in Photographs

Barbara I. BerschlerA case recently decided by the US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals offers commercial photographers a primer on what to do and what not to do in order to protect their copyright interests in their photographs. While the case involved some well known players—Kawasaki Motors and Roaring Toyz—and the unveiling of the ZX-14 sports motorcycle at the Daytona Bike Week in 2006, it took four years for the 11th Circuit to rule on the copyright claims of a photographer, and not all of the issues have yet been resolved.

The basic facts were that Kawaskai wanted to focus on the customization potential of its new motorcycle. It hired Toyz to customize some ZX-14 motorcycles to display at Daytona. As part of its customization efforts, Toyz hired an independent contractor, Ryan Hathaway, to apply custom paint and graphics to the vehicles. Toyz also hired Todd Latimer, a motorcycle photographer known for his unique and artistic style, to photograph the two customized ZX-14s.

The dispute arose over whether Kawasaki and Toyz used Latimer’s photographs in ways beyond those he claimed to have authorized. In response to Latimer’s claim of copyright infringement, the defendants raised significant arguments that he had to rebut. By examining some of these defensive arguments, you can learn from Latimer’s miscues.

Latimer’s first mistake was not having a written agreement that clearly stated what uses of his works he was permitting. Not taking the time to consider and memorialize, even if by an e-mail, what uses are permitted, subjected Latimer to the task of proving a negative, namely, that he did not authorize the use about which he then complained.

Ironically, Latimer had to overcome the argument that because his photographs were shot without Hathaway’s permission, he infringed on Hathaway’s copyright in the graphic art appearing on the motorcycles. Therefore, Latimer’s second mistake was not recognizing that what he was photographing contained separate copyright --protected material, thereby exposing himself to the claim that his photographs were not protected by copyright because they infringed Hathaway’s work. Only because the Court concluded that Hathaway had granted an implied license to have his work on the customized ZX-14s photographed was Latimer able to remain in the game. However, in accordance with the well-settled legal principle that “What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” Kawasaki and Toyz argued that their uses of the photographs came within an implied license from Latimer.

At this point it is useful to discuss how a court will determine the existence of an implied license. Basically, an implied license can be inferred from the conduct of the parties. The objective facts of a photographer creating a work at the request of another, delivering that work and intending that the person will copy and distribute the work, (i.e., knowing how the client intends to use the work), show the existence of an implied license. Once an implied license is established, it will be interpreted broadly unless there is proof that at the time of the work’s delivery, the photographer placed limitations on its use.

Latimer’s third mistake was not recognizing that his actions could be viewed as his grant of an implied license to use his photographs. In this case, the Court concluded that Latimer’s conduct resulted in an implied license. The unanswered question was whether any of Kawasaki’s uses exceeded the scope of the license.

Latimer’s fourth mistake was not having any clear proof when he delivered his work product (the photographs), that he intended to limit the scope of their use. This absence of proof of his intent resulted in the case being returned to the trial court to examine the facts on that issue.

The lesson from all of this is that commercial photographers can avoid Mr. Latimer’s problems by taking relatively simple steps to protect the use of their work.

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