Friday, June 24, 2011

Photo Credits: Can You Remove Them?

no shoes, no shirt;
no fair use defense
Dear Rich: Please discuss Murphy v. Millennium Radio Group, a recent case that deals with nudity, defamation and copyright law. Okay, here goes: A photographer's copyrighted picture of two nude radio "shock jocks" was published in the New Jersey Monthly. The radio station that employed the men scanned and posted the photo online (after removing the photo credit that ran alongside the photo -- known in the trade as a "gutter credit"). The station then encouraged listeners to download the photo, modify it and resubmit the photos to the station for posting. When the photographer's lawyer complained to the station, the jocks did what is expected from men who pose nude to promote radio shows -- they insulted the photographer, advised others not to do business with him, and made crude comments about his sexuality. The photographer sued for defamation, copyright infringement, and for violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The district court ruled in a summary judgment against the photographer on all counts.
The Court of Appeals Decision. On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed. More discovery was needed to decide the defamation claims (the tapes of the show had been destroyed). The Third Circuit also blew off any fair use defense. Posting the original photo and encouraging listener modifications was a purely commercial use and carried no additional transformative message. For those keeping score, all four fair use factors weighed against the station.
Removal of the credit. The most interesting claim was the argument that the DMCA prohibited the removal of copyright management information (CMI), which includes digital identifying information such as the name of the author. The Third Circuit ruled that the "gutter credit" qualified as CMI and cutting it off the photo violated the DMCA.
Takeaway Dept. In this case, someone physically cut off the photo credit, scanned the photo and posted the digital result, something not many people anticipated would trigger a DMCA claim. Does this mean that you must always include a photo credit when you reproduce a photo? Not necessarily; it just means you cannot remove an existing credit. This issue may become more confusing if the credit is not adjacent on the printed page, perhaps something that other cases will decide. For now, gutter credits qualify as CMI, at least in the Third Circuit.

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