A US federal jury has just found media companies Agence France-Presse and Getty Images guilty of wilful violation of the Copyright Act by lifting photos of the 2010 Haiti earthquake from the Twitter account of Haitian photojournalist Daniel Morel, and awarded him $1.2 million in damages. The case hinged on the question of actual wilful appropriation of the images, by copying and redistributing rather than just retweeting the independent content.

According to the Reuters article on the case, AFP picked Morel’s pictures out of the Twitter stream from another user account and passed them to Getty, which then redistributed them to clients. Some of the users of the photos, including the Washington Post, ABC, CBS and CNN, settled with Morel and his legal team out of court prior to today’s verdict – probably just as well, given that the jury finally decided to grant him the maximum possible amount of damages under the U.S. Copyright Act.

Interestingly, it was AFP itself that filed the suit in the first place in 2010, according to the Reuters coverage, seeking a formal acknowledgment from Morel that it had not impinged on his copyrights. AFP also tried to argue in court that it had innocently used the photos by mistake, thinking they were for general distribution, as well as that Twitter’s terms of service allowed free use of the pictures. The court evidently didn’t agree. The presiding judge, District Judge Alison Nathan, ruled in January that AFP and Getty were liable: the jury simply had to reach a verdict on the appropriate damages – and what a verdict.

Twitter users, photographers, writers and independent creators of all kinds can breathe a little easier following this verdict: using social media does not mean that Big Media has a right to step in and turn a quick buck from your work. It also should reassure more conservative creatives that rights protection and authorial protection does seem to be making the transition to the new media era successfully, without big-stick DRM and other draconian measures. AFP and Getty, meanwhile, have little reason to be happy, but then they can’t wear their suit and eat it.


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