Photographer Loses Lawsuit Over Pictures Shown Briefly in Documentary Video


Copyright infringement lawsuits are pretty much a fact of life if you create any kind of digital media.

man setting up camera zoom lens
Man setting up camera zoom lens. Photo by KAL VISUALS

But the real problem is what “exactly” constitutes damages from infringement or even damaging infringement in general. In some cases, where a license isn’t purchased or rights unobtained, the damages are pretty clear-cut and easy to pinpoint. Yet what about more oblique avenues to trampling on a creator’s rights?

We have to admit that some of the methods out there are pretty creative, with AI-generated images being chief among them.

So, you see, there are layers to the whole thing and infringement is way more complex than most lay people know. One thing, however, is pretty clear in most cases that are successful in the courtroom, at least in the United States, and that is an evident and obvious “intent” to disenfranchise someone from the right to profit from creative work, even if by accident. Simply featuring a creative or protected work in the background of a video or photo doesn’t meet this standard, U.S. District Judge Gregory H. Woods ruled in photographer Michael Kelley’s case against Apple. Featured in a documentary, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, a trailer for the documentary shows Kelley’s “Airportraits” of a Maori cultural group performance, PetaPixel reports. This brief inclusion in the background was ruled “de minimis” or minimal and the lawsuit crumbled under that.

“[The] photographs appear in the 140-minute film from a total of seven to 14 seconds per photograph. …In these fleeting shots, moreover, the photographs are oftentimes obstructed, out of focus, under low lighting, displayed at an angle to the viewer, and at all times in the background — far from appearing prominently in the film,” the ruling states according to PetaPixel.

Ultimately, the photographs in the background were deemed “fair use” with the judge opining at one point in his ruling what a ruling deeming such usage infringement would entail for the broader world of creative works writing that such application of copyright law would “stifle” the creation of other works.

Any thoughts you might have on this lawsuit are welcome in the comments.

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About Author

Kehl is our staff photography news writer since 2017 and has over a decade of experience in online media and publishing and you can get to know him better here and follow him on Insta.

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