Wednesday, April 14, 2010

11th Cir: Copyright Owners Deliver Artworks At Their Peril - Implied License Doctrine Swallows Copyright Act

The Copyright Act provides:

Detail from Todd Latimer's Midnight Rider - Full image here.

§ 202. Ownership of copyright as distinct from ownership of material object

Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy or phonorecord in which the work is first fixed, does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object; nor, in the absence of an agreement, does transfer of ownership of a copyright or of any exclusive rights under a copyright convey property rights in any material object.

(emphasis supplied).

§ 204. Execution of transfers of copyright ownership

(a) A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner's duly authorized agent.

The 11th Circuit basically tossed out the bolded language in a recent decision captioned Latimer v. Roaring Toyz, Inc., 2010 WL 1253090 (11th Cir. April 2, 2010) and radically expanded the doctrines of implied license and constructive delivery.

Here's the scenario, wildly oversimplified: 

Artist paints artwork onto motorcycle.  Knows it will be used in photography, stream of commerce.  Motorcycle company gets no release.  Artist is not plaintiff, has nothing to do with the case, but 11th Circuit spends a lot of time on him.

Plaintiff is motorcyle photographer.  Takes photos at motorcycle company's request.  Orally grants certain publication rights and thinks he owns/reserves the rest.  Photographer has granted first publication rights to Two Wheel Tuner mag.   Instead of distributing his high quality digital files per his instructions, company distributes them to press who unwittingly publish them, including defendant Hachette's Cycle World.

Motorcycle company who uses photos claims that they were unauthorized derivative works because the photographer didn't have a release from the guy who made the paintings on the motorcycle.

11th Circuit finds that the fact that motorcyle photographer delivered photographs without clear reservation of rights grants an implied license to motorcycle company to do whatever it likes.   FURTHER finds that anyone downstream has "constructive delivery" from the photographer and can do whatever they like without getting written permission.

Here is the 11th Circuit's new rule:

"Thus, an implied license will be limited to a specific use only if that limitation is expressly conveyed when the work is delivered"

In other words, if you deliver your photograph to someone and YOU don't write down that they can't do whatever the heck they want with it, you lose your copyright to that person and to anyone they give it to.

This case is really a breathtaking blow to photographers who often deliver their works hoping that a potential client will fall in love and license them.   Since the photographer said he knew that Kawasaki "might" use them, the 11th Circuit threw out his affidavit as a "sham".

In other Circuits, one must generally obtain written permission to use a photograph, the implied license doctrine is narrowly construed.

In addition, the 11th Circuit held that the photographer must prove that he gave the motorcycle company a course in copyright law to prevail:

Kawasaki asserts that Latimer did not expressly communicate to Kawasaki any restrictions on the use of the photographs. However, Latimer contends that all of his communications with Kawasaki went through Roaring Toyz and that he granted Kawasaki permission to use the photographs for a specific purpose-a media display at Bike Week. Thus, the question here is whether Latimer delivered a warning adequate to put Kawasaki on notice that certain uses of Latimer's photos would constitute copyright infringement.

Latimer v. Roaring Toyz, Inc., 2010 WL 1253090, 11 (11th Cir. April 2, 2010).

It should be noted that the 11th Circuit purported to give a victory to the photographer, but the burdens of proof that have been spelled out are highly problematic and appear to be inconsistent with the plain language of the Copyright Act and a body of case law that generally puts photographers in the driver's seat when there is an unauthorized publication of their works.

The Photoattorney blog found some good news in the decision, read here.

For a wildly different view from Kevin Smith at Duke, look here.

A totally different angle at Exclusive Rights blog here.

Read on below:


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't read the case as problematic as you do. Or to clarify, I read the case as much more problematic than you do to the extent that I don't think any single pronouncement -- such as your highlighting of the 11th Circuit's take on limiting implied licenses -- means much of anything. How about the many examples of the court used publish and distribute interchangeably (they're two very different concepts)? Or how the Circuit decided without any analysis that the motorcycles were useful articles and were not copyrightable subject matter (that's a hell of a leap)? Or how the court went of the way to address fair use issues it could have just left alone. Never mind the fact that I still don't understand how if we were to consider photos derivative works it will lead to some cataclysmic outcome -- a photo can still be infringing even if it is not derivative.

There is nothing redeeming about this opinion. It's so poorly written that I can't imagine any court, even the district courts in the Circuit, will take away any substantive law.