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Summary:

BuzzFeed published nine photographs and now an image owner wants $1.3 million. Is this a fair or practical way to use copyright law in an age where images are everywhere?

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A photo agency is demanding $1.3 million from BuzzFeed after the viral news site published photos of singer Katy Perry and actress Kathy Griffin. The case comes at a time when online media is increasingly image-based, and raises questions about whether current copyright law is still working.

Credit: Marvix Photo

First, the facts. Florida-based Mavrix Photo filed a complaint in LA this week that claims BuzzFeed deliberately scraped the celebrity images as part of an effort to drive traffic to the site. It cited nine photos, including Perry on a rooftop (see right) and Griffin dancing topless (NSFW, obviously).

On its face, the case seems straightforward enough: even if celebrity photos are inane, people want to see them and photographers have a right earn a living by snapping them. Why should BuzzFeed or anyone else use them for free?

But it’s not that simple. That’s because Mavrix appears to be in the business of copyright trolling — scouring the internet for unauthorized use of its images and threatening anyone who uses them with million dollar lawsuits. This practice has recently degenerated into lawyers recruiting other lawyers to hunt down a hit list of alleged infringers with a promise to share the bounty.

The legal dilemma is a result of the very big stick that the law gives to copyright owners — the right to seek damages of up to $150,000 for each single infringement. This penalty has its place as a nuclear option of sorts to stop or deter serial infringers. Unfortunately, some image owners are brandishing the nuclear option against everyone — from small blogs to careless interns (who may have been responsible for the BuzzFeed shots)  — without taking any account of the actual harm done by the copyright infringement. Instead of a simple request to take the image down (which most people would comply with), we get a legal train wreck.

In age when images are everywhere (Tumblr, Pinterest, BuzzFeed, an so on), the $150,000 nuclear option seems impractical and unfair except in the most egregious cases. A better option would be for Congress to consider crafting some type of small claims court for copyright with graduated penalties for repeat offenders.

Buzzfeed stated it’s looking into the lawsuit but declined to comment further. You can read the complaint and see the offending pictures for yourself below:

Mavrix v BuzzFeed
(Image by Yuri Arcurs via Shutterstock)

  1. Kathy Griffin topless?

    Well, I’m officially gay.

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  2. Wow. I believe soon that the world will be compltely public.

    The problem stems from the very big stick that the law gives to copyright owners — the right to damages of up to $150,000 for each single infringement.

    Laws like these will disappear in only a matter of time.

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  3. I tend to disagree with the tone of the article. Buzzfeed and others are making money by stealing a lot of photos from everyever, while those photos are often quite expensive to produce. Yes, $150,000 for one photo is certainly too much, but how would you discourage copyright infringement, if most sources will not claim damages?

    The main question this case raises is not whether copyright is still working, but if Buzzfeed-like sites shouldn’t pay for copyrighted photos.

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  4. No it does not raise questions as to the copyright law. Until now everyone got away with it now the laws are catching up on the internet. Generally if its not your picture, don’t use it. What floats around not the internet is not free to use. You have to get permission or obtain proper licenses for the image. To find the source of the images, use reverse google image earch. Why should sites like Buzz Feed hoard images and make profit off of it (having adverting etc). These cases often are driven celebrity agency and photos that lead the way in suite cause they have resources. But this applies to all photos, any original content. It cost lot of money to produce (photo or any original content). Unless these parasite ( they produce very little original content but take form others and profit) sites are slapped with lawn suites, they will keep infringing and profiting.

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  5. “Credit: Marvix Photo”

    Satirical typo? Or $150k intern mistake.

    Clever, Gigaom. Very clever.

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  6. lol @ Yunghi So you want Google images and Pinterest to pay for each instance of every image they use? Really? How does this make anything functional? Weirdo.

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  7. I agree with yunghi, and Bj is a jerk.

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  8. What about fair use issues?

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  9. Yunghi got it just right – couldn’t have said it better myself. The only thing I would add is that Google and Pinterest aren’t liable when they serve photos – the people who knowingly post the copyrighted photos are.

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  10. This is a straightforward case of copyright infringement. The idiots who think this kind of theft is “fair use” are … well … idiots. Or thieves.

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  11. Theft is theft in any industry, and should come with significant punitive damages. The law is working perfectly, and protecting photographers from having their work stolen.
    – If I wrote a book, and found that someone else published it without my permission, would I be out of line in sueing the infringing party? No.
    – If I owned a bicycle shop, had some bicycles stolen, would I be a “troll” for checking pawn shops in the area? No.

    Same rules apply for photographers – they have a right to protect their livelihood from thieves.
    Theft is theft and should be punished to the full extent of the law.

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  12. No one is born with the information ‘don’t stick metal object into electrical sockets’ but somehow we all ‘learn’ this from our elders. If the ‘intern’ is responsible for making the choice for the company then who really is to blame? We must all teach the next and all future generations the laws that will directly effect them and their jobs. If someones registered intellectual property has been used without permission then they have the right to sue for damages. Please don’t for one second think that the owners of BuzzFeed are unaware of the law.

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  13. Don’t for one second think that the owners of BuzzFeed don’t know the law. If someones registered, intellectual property is used without permission then that person, or company, has the right to sue for damages. Don’t blame the Intern for not knowing the law, someone at the company they are working for should have explained this to them. No one is born with the knowledge that we don’t stick metal objects into electrical sockets. We are taught this from our elders. If the future generations plan on being in the information business they need to be taught what the law states and how to obtain proper licenses for image usage. Digital media is only going to continue to grow, with new and clever ways of distributing information. The people who create that information should be compensated for their effort.

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  14. Protecting authors rights is essential in this day and age, more than ever!
    But it appears, most readers, are missing the whole point of this article.
    Ambulance chasers taking advantage of high possible penalties are abusing the system.
    The goal of the law, was noble. especially to protect creators, not to make sketchy lawyers rich via e&o insurance quick claims.

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  15. The Copyright Office will hold public hearings on small copyright claim issues in New York City on November 15-16, 2012 and Los Angeles on November 26-27, 2012.

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  16. Everyone is out to get your best work, the better it is the more it will be appropriated. Just today I got 23 marvelous shots from my bass player, bless her heart, none of the images had any indication of who shot them. This happened to the music industry early on, the recording companies jumped in and protected their artists. Photographers being mainly freelancers have been on their own with out a net and let’s face it pussies about their own work forever. Watermark your work, register it and post it only to your own server.

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