In what could be a landmark case, a Manhattan judge ruled late Monday, Jan. 14, that two news organizations, AFP and the Washington Post, infringed on the copyrights of photographer Daniel Morel when they published images he had published on the microblogging site Twitter. The case is one of the first to address intellectual property as it pertains to social media sites.
The ruling effectively means that news organizations can't publish photos they find on Twitter without permission, because the photos are protected by copyright. AFP had argued that because the images posted to Twitter, they were free for anyone to use. However, Judge Alison Nathan pointed to Twitter's terms of service, which states that Twitter users own their photos.
Twitter allows for retweeting of content, and because of that, AFP additionally argued that Twitter's terms of service granted it the right to use Morel's images. Nathan, however, said that while Twitter's terms of service allow the reposting and retweeting of users' content, including images, it does not grant a license for commercial use.
In Morel's case, the photographer tweeted images of the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. They then spread quickly after an AFP editor discovered them through another Twitter user's account.
AFP distributed several of the pictures to Getty Images, and the Washington Post, a Getty client, used four of those images on its website. Getty is a party to the litigation, but Nathan hasn't ruled on its role in the case yet.
Ironically, AFP lost, and it was the one that first brought suit. After Morel complained about the use of his images, AFP filed a lawsuit in March of 2010, hoping to get a ruling that said that it hadn't infringed on copyrights. Morel then countersued AFP, Getty Images and the Washington Post.
Nathan's ruling wasn't one-sided, though. She also placed a limit on how much money Morel could collect from the suit. Morel had sought "tens or hundreds of millions of dollars" in statutory damages. He wanted damages for each Getty subscriber that used the images supplied by AFP.
Instead, Nathan said only AFP and Getty would be required to pay. She also ruled they will also pay only a single amount for each image infringed upon.
Finally, Nathan refused to grant Morel's motion for summary judgment on whether AFP, Getty and the Washington Post acted willfully, as well as whether the companies violated Morel's rights under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Despite the fact that the case is Twitter-specific, one could imagine it could lead to similar actions with regard to Instagram or Facebook image use. The case is Agence France Presse v. Morel, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 10-02730.