Updated with comment from Agence France-Pressse attorney.
Agence France-Presse stunned the Twitter-sphere last month when the wire service defended itself against a copyright claim brought by Daniel Morel, a photographer who captured iconic images of the Haiti earthquake, by saying that the photos were essentially free for the taking because they’d been shared over Twitter and TwitPic. Tweeting photographers can rest easy, because now a court has ruled that AFP isn’t off the hook, and will have to answer for its unauthorized use of Morel’s images.
The case is being closely watched because it was one of the first legal tests of the rules around news agencies’ use of content from Twitter, which has become an increasingly important component of breaking-news coverage.
Morel took several iconic photos of the Haiti disaster, and uploaded them to TwitPic, a service that allows Twitter users to easily share photos. He also advertised, via Twitter, that his photos were available for purchase. However, according to Morel’s account in court documents, his photos were illegally copied by Lisandro Suero, a resident of the Dominican Republic. Several major news agencies, including the AFP and Newsweek, published Morel’s photos but improperly credited them to Suero, and never paid Morel.
Morel, who was born in Haiti in 1951 and lived there until he moved to the U.S. at the age of 18, was one of a few professional photojournalists in Port-au-Prince when the city was hit by an earthquake on Jan. 12.
AFP had claimed that it had broad re-use rights because of Twitter’s terms of service. “This broad re-use is evidenced every day when Twitter/TwitPic posts are copied, reprinted, quoted, and republished by third parties,” wrote AFP’s lawyers.
Now that AFP has lost key arguments of its motion to dismiss, Morel can move ahead with his copyright claims against AFP and other news companies that used the photo. Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has been observing the case, writes:
“AFP made numerous mistakes that resulted in infringing photos being injected into the news coverage of a major world crisis, which inadvertently tainted a variety of downstream media properties-all of whom, due to copyright’s strict liability standard, are likely to write checks to Morel. AFP and its unfortunate partners should end their likely-futile and sometimes-silly defense and settle up with Morel so that everyone can move on to more productive endeavors.”