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Press agencies ordered to pay $1.2 million for stealing photos from Twitter

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A U.S. district court judge ordered Agence France-Presse (AFP) and stock photo company Getty Images, Inc. to pay a total of $1.2 million for images they acquired from Twitter. 

The images were originally taken by photographer Daniel Morel, formerly of the Associated Press, who used his camera to document the aftermath of a magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake which struck the Caribbean nation of Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. Realising the importance of bringing the devastation to light as quickly as possible, he created a Twitter account (@PhotoMorel) to circulate the images, which he uploaded via TwitPic.

A few hours later, the pictures were downloaded by Vincent Amalvy, Director of Photography for North America and South America at AFP, and subsequently distributed to Getty without Morel’s authorization. (Before they were acquired by AFP, another Twitter user from the Dominican Republic named Lisandro Suaero re-uploaded the images and credited himself as the photographer.)

The news agencies willfully violated Morel’s intellectual property rights after the images were re-published by AFP without his permission, a 7-member jury found after five hours of deliberation. 

In 2010, Morel hired an attorney to issue cease and desist orders to the corporate news agencies featuring his work. However, instead of removing the photos, AFP sued Morel, alleging commercial defamation. In response, Morel filed a counterclaim against AFP, Getty and the Washington Post for infringing on his copyrights. In addition, Morel’s lawyers contended that AFP and Getty were secondarily liable for violating the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA).

In court, AFP’s lawyers argued that since the photographs had been first posted to Twitter, they were open to commercial use. For this reason, the case was widely observed both by the public and the media. 

In January 2013, a judge found AFP’s claims to be erroneous. While TwitPic’s terms of service allow for the reposting of user images (as retweets for example), this does not authorize companies to appropriate pictures for their own commercial use, the judge found. 

The judge’s ruling was only partially in favor of Morel’s summary motion, however, which limited his compensation to the $1.2 million figure. AFP and Getty were also found to have violated the DMCA and Morel was awarded an additional $20,000. All parties involved in the lawsuit have reserved the right to appeal the ruling.

In the past, Twitter has specifically stated that users maintain exclusive rights to any photographs featured on the microblogging sitethat they legitimately ownand the company’s stance on the issue isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Morel’s photos were purchased by several other news agencies, including the New York Times, who displayed his photographs on its photoblog Lens in 2010. A selection of Morel’s work can also be viewed on the website Latinos Behind the Lens.

Illustration by Dell Cameron