Stock Photos Warning

Key point 9-05.08. Copyright infringement occurs when one violates any one or more of the

Key point 9-05.08. Copyright infringement occurs when one violates any one or more of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner.

Key point § 9-05.11. Publishers cannot place the contents of magazines and other periodicals in online electronic databases and on CD-ROMs without obtaining the permission of writers whose articles were included in those periodicals.

A federal court in New York ruled that a company that purchased a license to use various stock photos could be sued for copyright infringement for using the photos beyond the permission granted in the licensing agreement. A licensing agency (the "plaintiff") licenses stock photographs for a licensing fee. A publisher (the "defendant") entered in several license agreements with the plaintiff to use specified stock photos in various publications. These licenses were "expressly limited by number of copies, distribution area, image size, language, duration and/or media (print or electronic)." The agreements also stated that the plaintiff "reserves the right to bill the customer (and the customer hereby agrees to pay) ten (10) times the normal license fee for any unauthorized use, in addition to any other fees, damages, or penalties [the plaintiff] may be entitled to under this agreement or applicable law."

The plaintiff filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court, citing 294 instances of alleged infringement by the defendant. In each case, the plaintiff allegedly exceeded the limitations imposed by the licensing agreements. Specifically, the lawsuit alleged that the defendant used photos

  • in numbers exceeding the limited print quantities in the licenses;
  • displayed the images online or in digital media without permission to do so;
  • distributed the images in geographic territories that were not authorized; and
  • copied the images in custom, state-specific language, or international editions without permission to do so.

The plaintiff asked the court for the following damages: (1) destruction or other reasonable disposition of the unlawfully used photos, including digital files and any other means by which they could be used again without the plaintiff's authorization; (2) an award of actual damages; (3) statutory damages; (4) attorneys' fees; and (4) an award of 10 times the license fee for unauthorized uses pursuant to the agreements.

The defendant asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on several grounds, but the court concluded that the plaintiff had stated a valid claim for copyright infringement.

What This Means For Churches:

This case illustrates an important point. Churches often purchase stock photos for use in church publications or on a website. In some cases, churches that purchase stock photos are given full rights in the photos, meaning that the church can use them in any form or medium it chooses, including digital media. But in other cases, a church purchases a license to use selected stock photos, and such licenses often contain restrictions on the use of the photos. This case illustrates that such restrictions may include limits on quantity, online or digital reproductions, geographic territory, and modification or editing. Churches that purchase licenses to stock photos should carefully review any such restrictions, and ensure that they are honored. A failure to do so may expose the church to substantial penalties. Lefkowitz v. McGraw-Hill Global Educ. Holdings, 2014 WL 2481904 (S.D.N.Y. 2014).

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This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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