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AFP v. MOREL: Lessons for Using Content Found Online

Louis J. Levy
S. Jenell Trigg
Lerman Senter PLLC - Washington Office

February 21, 2013

Previously published on February 19, 2013

A recent court decision underscores the importance of exercising caution when using content found online (particularly on social media websites), and of training staff at all levels to direct communications alleging copyright infringement or other claims to counsel. In Agence France Presse v. Daniel Morel, No. 10-cv-02730 (SDNY, January 14, 2013), the court ruled that two news organizations, Agence France Presse (“AFP”) and The Washington Post (the “Post”), committed copyright infringement by using images found on Twitter of the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The decision derives from a complaint filed by AFP seeking a declaratory judgment against Daniel Morel, a well-known photojournalist, that its use of Morel’s image was not infringing. Morel filed counterclaims against AFP and Getty Images, among others, for copyright infringement and related claims, subsequently adding the Post, a Getty subscriber, to the complaint.


Daniel Morel was in Haiti at the time of the January 2010 earthquake, and posted photos of the quake’s immediate aftermath through his TwitPic account to Twitter. The photos were later reposted to the Twitter account of a third party named Suero, and subsequently discovered and downloaded by a photography director from AFP and sent to the AFP photo desk for processing. Under the terms of a reciprocal license agreement, AFP shared the photographs with Getty Images for licensing to third party subscribers via the Getty website. AFP originally transmitted the photos to Getty with incorrect attribution - crediting the photos to Suero rather than Morel. Realizing its error, AFP sent a caption correction to Getty, which Getty then sent to its subscribers. AFP did not, however, remove the images with incorrect attribution from Getty’s system. Later notified that Morel was represented exclusively by Corbis Images, a competing licensing agent, Getty removed photos credited to Morel from its system, but failed to also remove photos incorrectly credited to Suero until weeks later. In the interim, the Post published four of the Morel images on its website, three of which were incorrectly credited to Suero, and, as discussed below, the Post failed to remove the photos despite several requests to do so.

Key Holdings

Ruling on cross-summary judgment motions, the court found that AFP and the Post were directly liable for copyright infringement. The court rejected an affirmative defense that by posting his photos on Twitter, Morel had granted AFP a license to reproduce and distribute the photos. AFP had argued that Twitter’s Terms of Service (“TOS”) made AFP a third party beneficiary of that license, free to post, license, or otherwise use the photos in a virtually unlimited way. The court firmly rejected this argument, observing that the Twitter TOS applies only to Twitter partners and sublicensees (which AFP was not). Further, the court noted that, although Twitter’s Guidelines for Third Party Use of Tweets in Broadcast or Other Offline Media encourage the use of Twitter in broadcasts, those standards specifically require that a username be included with the full text of any Tweet used, and with respect to images, that the image only be displayed with the associated Tweet and include a reference to Twitter. Nothing in the TOS, concluded the court, granted AFP the right to remove images from Twitter and subsequently license them to third parties. Such an interpretation would be a “gross expansion” of the terms of the Twitter TOS.

Notwithstanding the holdings against AFP and the Post, the court denied Morel’s motion for summary judgment that Getty was also directly liable for copyright infringement. Instead, the court held that there were unresolved issues of fact regarding Getty’s eligibility for the safe harbor under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which Getty had asserted as a defense. AFP and the Post did not raise this defense.

Observations and Recommendations

In addition to the court’s rulings, this case is also noteworthy because of the failure of the Post to respond adequately to the initial communications from Morel’s counsel. Morel’s counsel had sent an email to an officer of the Post’s parent company via a general corporate email address in March 2010, offering to allow the newspaper to keep the images on its website provided they were accompanied by a correct credit. This email, if received in the general corporate inbox, was never forwarded to the addressee. The Post also failed to respond to subsequent correspondence. It was not until June 2010, after a Getty representative again contacted the Post, that the newspaper attempted to delete the images from its website. For unknown reasons, however, the images remained in the website’s gallery until April 2011.

These facts underscore the importance of training staff to understand that communications containing copyright infringement or other claims need to be forwarded to legal or other appropriate departments without delay. Also, safeguards should be in place to confirm that remedial actions are taken promptly and efficiently. In the case of the Post, had the initial letter from Morel’s counsel been forwarded to the appropriate individuals in the company, an easy, cost-free solution would have been available.

The decision also points to vulnerabilities that may exist even when images are properly licensed from stock photo services such as Getty. Here, the Post subscribed to Getty’s services and believed it was fully entitled to use those photos. It did not know that the photos it downloaded contained incorrect credits. Nor did the Post know that Getty did not have the right to distribute Morel’s photos. As noted above, those rights belonged to Corbis Images. When using images from stock image services, if there is any question about their provenance, it would be prudent to confirm, to the extent practicable, that the service in fact has the right to distribute the image to be used.

This case illustrates the risks involved with using images found on social media such as Twitter or Facebook. The terms of use for these and other social media websites generally confirm that ownership of images posted on their websites belong to the image owner, not the service, and otherwise state the limited conditions under which images and other content may be used. If those conditions are not met, and assuming that fair use exceptions do not apply, third parties do not have the right to broadcast, distribute or otherwise commercially exploit such content without the permission of the owner.


The views expressed in this document are solely the views of the author and not Martindale-Hubbell. This document is intended for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for consultation with a licensed legal professional in a particular case or circumstance.

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