Photographer Triumphs in Lawsuit Over Creative Commons Image Rights

A website recently faced legal action after using a photo without the proper credit. In 2016, the site posted concert photographer Larry Philpot’s image of musician Ted Nugent in an article. Philpot had copyrighted the 2013 photograph and published it on Wikimedia Commons under a “Creative Commons” license, stating that anyone could use it for free as long as they provided attribution to the photographer. However, the website failed to include Philpot’s required attribution for the photo.

Philpot filed a copyright infringement lawsuit four years later in May 2020, arguing that the website’s use of his photo was outside the scope of the free-to-use license. Initially, a federal judge ruled in the website’s favor, stating that their use of the photograph could be considered fair use. However, last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the ruling and indicated that the use did not constitute fair use.

The Fourth Circuit explained that the website’s use of the photo did not add new purpose or meaning and made only minimal alterations to it. They also noted Philpot’s creative choices when taking the photograph, which weighed against fair use. Additionally, they found that actions like those of the website could cause “cognizable market harm.” The court also examined whether the website’s use of the photograph was for commercial purposes and found that it was. Despite the website earning only a small amount in ad revenue from the article with Philpot’s photo, the use was still considered commercial.

This case signals a potentially more stringent interpretation of fair use by U.S. courts following a recent Supreme Court ruling. The ruling refers to a case involving photographer Jeff Sedlik and celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D, who went to trial over a copyright infringement claim. However, Von D emerged victorious in the trial despite the Supreme Court’s decision.

In sum, the legal battle underscores the importance of respecting copyright and licensing agreements, and the potential for stricter enforcement of copyright law. The outcome also illustrates the evolving landscape of fair use and the continuing challenges in defining and enforcing copyright protections in the digital age.

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