A copyright lawsuit filed in New York federal court last week underscores the risk online publications face when they use questionably sourced images. (If you’ve ever attributed a photo to “Twitter,” you really, really need to read and understand this.)
Before I can explain the lawsuit, I should probably explain what happened.
In May, 19-year-old Columbia University sophomore Nayla Kidd went missing. She emerged safe and sound a few weeks later, after the police tracked her down in Brooklyn; feeling isolated and unhappy with her educational experience, she just “walked away” from her life and started over.
A professional photographer, John Curtis Rice, took Kidd’s picture next to one of her missing persons photos on May 29th. He licensed the image to the New York Post‘s website, which ran the photo with a cutline credit.
The post then tweeted a link to the story with the photo.
This is why Nayla Kidd had to escape her Ivy League life and disappear https://t.co/4ulE9SYaCK
— New York Post (@nypost) May 30, 2016
Two days later, the image showed up on a bunch of radio station websites without the credit attached, and that’s the basis of the lawsuit. The story is no longer live on the sites listed in the lawsuit, but if you look at the cached versions, they attribute the photo to “twitter.com/nypost.”
So that’s the underlying basis of the lawsuit. Photographer Rice is suing the parent company of the radio stations, Cox Media Group. CMG owns radio stations, newspapers, and television stations, and is the corporate sibling of cable provider Cox Communications.
One novel aspect to the lawsuit is that it alleges both a traditional copyright infringement claim and a “removal of rights management information” claim under Section 1202 (basically, taking the copyright notice off a protected work). The only U.S. case where this has been raised before (Murphy v. Millennium Radio Group LLC, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10719 (D. N.J. Jan 30, 2015)) hasn’t completely worked its way through the court system yet, and it’s even stranger to raise it on these facts, where the image is sourced to a legitimate use where the attribution didn’t even appear — the tweet.
But what’s not novel is this: Getting a photo from social media and attributing it to the social media feed is not an acceptable substitute for a copyright license (or a legitimate fair use).
Questions about republishing images found online? Consult the SPLC’s Guide to Fair Use.