Photography / Arts / Design

Moving the Needle Part II: Court Inks Decision in Favor of Defendants in Solid Oak Sketches, LLC v. 2K Games, Inc. (S.D.N.Y.)

By Scott J. Sholder

Four years ago, we reported on a headline-worthy copyright infringement lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dealing with tattoos in video games. The case was brought by a licensing entity for tattoo artists against the makers of the popular NBA 2K games over depictions of real-life basketball players’ tattoos on their digital game avatars.  Last week, after full discovery and extensive motion practice, Judge Laura Taylor Swain granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion dismissing the plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim on grounds of de minimis use and implied license and granted their cross-motion for a declaration that the depiction of the tattoos in the game constituted fair use.  This was the result that we speculated as being the likely outcome in light of the dearth of on-point case law, and it seems to be the correct decision both as a legal and practical policy matter.

2K Games’ NBA 2K series is an annual blockbuster that simulates professional basketball with lifelike depictions of teams, players, arenas, and the sights and sounds of a real NBA game.  The goal is a realistic and faithful rendering of the NBA experience.  One of the lifelike aspects of the game is the re-creation of players’ distinctive tattoos.  Plaintiff claimed that five tattoos for which it owns rights were depicted on NBA players Eric Bledsoe, LeBron James, and Kenyon Martin in the 2014-2016 versions of the game and that such public display violated the Copyright Act of 1976.  Solid Oak owns an exclusive license to the five tattoos but does not have permission to recreate them and does not have publicity or trademark rights in the NBA players’ likenesses.  On the other hand, the players provided the NBA with the right to license their likenesses to third parties, and the NBA granted such a license to defendants.

The court described the tattoos and explained that, for each one, the tattoo artist “knew and intended that when” the NBA player receiving the tattoo “appeared in public, on television, in commercials, or in other forms of media, he would display” the tattoo; that the artist intended that the tattoos would “become a part of [the player’s] likeness”; and that the player “was and is free to use as he desire[d], including allowing others to depict it, such as in advertisements and video games.”  The artists also admittedly knew that the men at issue were NBA players and would likely appear in the media, as well as in video games.

These admissions by the artists were critical to the court’s decision concerning implied license, a critical defense in the context of tattoo copyrights.  An implied license can be found “where one party created a work at the other’s request and handed it over intending that the other copy and distribute it.”  The court held that such was the case here, explaining that that tattooists admittedly granted the NBA players nonexclusive licenses to use the art as part of their likenesses, prior to granting any rights to Solid Oak, and in turn, the players (through the NBA) implicitly granted defendants the right to depict the tattoos as part of their likenesses.

The court also spent significant time explaining its de minimis infringement ruling.  To prove copyright infringement, the plaintiff must prove that the amount copied was not “so trivial as to fall below the quantitative threshold of substantial similarity.”  To make this determination, the court analyzed the amount copied; the length of time the work can be seen; and other factors such as focus, lighting, and prominence, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary observer.  The court held that all three factors weighed definitively in favor of the defendants and that “no reasonable trier of fact could find the Tattoos as they appear in NBA 2K to be substantially similar to the designs licensed to Solid Oak.” 

Laying the foundation of its analysis by describing the many graphical, visual, auditory, and dramatic elements of the 2K games, the court put the overall prominence of the tattoos into stark relief.  The five tattoos comprised between 0.000286% and 0.000431% of the total game data; were never depicted separately from the players (who comprised only 3 out of over 400 avatars); appeared between 4.4% and 10.96% of their actual size; and were only visible when a user selected a particular player, and even then were not fully visible, and were indecipherable during actual gameplay given the speed and erratic nature of the avatars’ movement.  The court, agreeing with the defendants’ statement of undisputed facts, characterized the tattoos as appearing as nothing more than “visual noise,” and found that, even in the rare event the tattoos were displayed, such display was “small and indistinct” and “cannot be identified or observed.”   

Finally, the court engaged in a fair use analysis, holding that all four statutory factors weighed in defendants’ favor.  As to the first factor (purpose and character of the use), the court held that the defendants’ use was undisputedly “transformative,” a critical element of fair use.  While the games depicted exact copies of the tattoos, its purpose in doing so was not the same as the tattoos’ original purposes of self-expression through body art.  Rather, defendants depicted the tattoos to accurately depict the players, notably without even making the details of the tattoos observable.  Moreover, the size of the tattoos was significantly reduced and distorted, such that the game offered no “more than a glimpse” of the tattoos’ expressive value and made up an “inconsequential portion of NBA 2K” on the whole.  And while NBA 2K was undoubtedly a commercial product, the tattoos were incidental to the commercial value of the game and were not used in the game’s marketing.

The court’s analysis of the second factor (nature of the copyrighted work), was more detailed than a typical analysis of this element of fair use.  The second factor asks whether the work is more expressive/creative or factual, and whether the work is published or unpublished, and is typically glossed over by courts as immaterial to the analysis.  While the published nature of the tattoos tipped the second factor in defendants’ favor, the court went on to hold that the tattoo designs themselves were actually more factual than expressive “because they are each based on another factual work or comprise representational renderings of common objects and motifs that are frequently found in tattoos.”  Downplaying the creative and expressive nature of each of the tattoos based on the circumstances behind their creation, the court observed that the tattooists had admitted that each work “copied common tattoo motifs or were copied from designs and pictures [the artists] themselves did not create.”

The third factor (amount and substantiality of the work used) is also typically glossed over, and this case was no exception.  The court noted that even copying the entire work sometimes will fail to weigh against fair use where, as here, the use is deemed transformative.  Even so, the court reiterated that the tattoo renditions were reduced in size and barely recognizable on the game screen.

The fourth factor (effect of the allegedly infringing work on existing or potential markets for the work) tends, like the first factor, to receive more weigh in the analysis, and the court found this factor to definitively favor defendants.  The court held that the game’s depiction of the tattoos was not a competing substitute for the original.  In light of the “transformative” use of the works, the tattoos featured in the games would not serve as market substitutes for the use of the tattoos in any other medium, and plaintiff even conceded that NBA 2K was not a market substitute for the tattoos.  The court therefore decided that potential purchasers of the tattoo designs were unlikely to “opt to acquire the copy [in the game] in preference to the original.”  Even so, the court found that there was no evidence in the record that a market for licensing tattoos for use in video games or other media was likely to develop. 

While the Solid Oak case proceeds because defendants’ counterclaim for fraud on the Copyright Office remains in play, a solid precedent has been set in the new frontier of tattoo-based copyright law.  While it is not yet binding (and would only be regionally binding if affirmed on appeal), this decision will be extremely important to digital media companies nationwide given its solid legal analysis and common-sense reasoning.  The Solid Oak opinion should be at the top of this year’s cases-to-know list when it comes to content clearance, vetting, and risk assessment, and should ease the concerns of those scratching their heads when facing the potential licensing nightmare that could arise from attempting to clear all body art depicted in popular media.  It will also likely prove to be a boon to the stock image industry during an era when tattoos are increasingly common and may appear in more images of people than ever before.   On the other hand, artists, and tattoo artists especially, may decry the opinion, in particular the second-factor analysis, which may be interpreted as diminishing the copyrightability of tattoos that depict certain “typical” artistic elements like faces, flames, wizards, and sports equipment.  But it is important to note that the ruling on that factor was context-specific, and every work of art will be different and will be created under unique circumstances.  Overall, any feared risk to future creators is minimal and is significantly outweighed by the practical benefits afforded to established as well as new and developing forms of media.

Judge in Amateur Photojournalism Case Rejects Lack of Originality Argument

By Sara Gates

In a decision that will likely be seen as a victory for photojournalism, a judge in the Eastern District of New York recently rejected the legal argument that an iPhone photograph, taken by a passerby who was in the right place at the right time, lacked originality.  The decision represents a turn away from what the photography community would undoubtedly perceive as a slippery slope, i.e., if a court embraced a broad view that photographs captured by amateur photographers on their iPhones are not entitled to copyright protection.

The case pitted Alex Cruz, a passerby who captured a photograph of police apprehending a terrorist attack suspect in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City in October 2017, against Cox Media Group, which holds a large portfolio of TV and radio stations, newspapers, and websites.  After the photograph was posted to Instagram, Cruz licensed the image to media companies including CNN and NBC (https://www.nbcnews.com/slideshow/terrorist-truck-attack-shocks-new-york-city-n816236).  Cox, without seeking permission, published the photograph in a gallery on one of its websites, accompanying an article about the suspect, as well as on its social media channel.  Facing a copyright infringement claim, Cox later argued that Cruz’s photograph lacked sufficient originality to entitle it to copyright protection and support a copyright infringement claim.

Specifically, Cox alleged that Cruz did not make any creative choices in capturing the photograph, arguing that the photograph therefore did not possess a “modicum of creativity,” citing the oft-used language from Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).  Judge Garaufis did not agree with this argument, finding that Cruz’s photograph reflected several creative choices, including timing (i.e., being in the right place at the right time) and his decision to take the photograph when he did (when law enforcement was apprehending the suspect, who was lying on the ground).

The judge applied the law of the Second Circuit, citing precedents such as Mannion v. Coors Brewing Co., 377 F. Supp. 2d 444 (S.D.N.Y. 2005), in which the Southern District of New York held that a photograph may be original in three respects: (1) rendition, (2) timing, and (3) creation of the subject, and Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301 (2d Cir. 1992), in which the Second Circuit recognized that “original” elements of a photograph may include “posing the subjects, lighting, angle, selection of film and camera, evoking the desired express, and almost any other variant involved.”

Though there may be instances in which a photograph is a slavish copy (such as in cases involving a photograph of a photograph), or a photograph serves a purely utilitarian purpose (such as showing what a standard Chinese menu item dish contains), where a photographer (whether amateur or professional) exercises any creative choices to capture the photograph, this decision supports the principle that photographers should be deprived of copyright protection.  Judge Garaufis recognized at least two creative choices relating to the timing of the photograph, but there were likely others, such as the angle and set-up of the shot.  With technological advances, the abilities of iPhone (or other mobile device) users to capture creative photographs with their devices, rather than a traditional camera, are greatly increased.  Aspects like depth of field, lighting, and frame can all be adjusted with a click of a button.  In this instance, notwithstanding whether Cruz used additional iPhone features to capture the photograph, the court found that he still exercised sufficient creative choices in deciding when, where, and from what angle to take the photograph to capture an inherently newsworthy event. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments of photojournalism are based on the photographer being at the right place at the time and knowing how to frame a compelling image (https://www.digitalphotomentor.com/20-most-famous-photographs/). 

Lack of originality is a difficult defense particularly in photo cases, as most photographs will be protected by copyright law, even if that protection is thin. Though judges should not place themselves in the situation of being arbiters of what is and is not art, oftentimes they are faced with the question of whether a work contains sufficient creative authorship to qualify for copyright protection, one of the prima facie elements of a copyright infringement claim.  This case represented a reasoned application of well-settled law despite an unconventional defense that may have prevailed under different circumstances and as applied to different forms of art.

This case is Alex Cruz v. Cox Media Group, LLC, Case No. 2:18-cv-01041-NGG-AKT (E.D.N.Y. March 13, 2020).

Fair Use in Gaming Content – FAQS For Creators

By Simon Pulman and Mikaela Gross

Fair use is one of the most important – and most misunderstood – concepts in the area of copyright law. It is an important concept for anyone who is using content owned by third parties – which includes anyone who livestreams gaming, creates “let’s play” videos or otherwise uses gaming assets and branding. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet and thus creators are often unclear about their rights and responsibilities.

With that said, here are answers to some frequently asked questions for creators:

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is an exception to the general principle that unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is copyright infringement. Simply put, if a claim of copyright infringement is brought against a defendant, the “defendant” can try to demonstrate they made a fair use of the allegedly infringed work in order to prevail in the case.

Because fair use is a defense, only a court can say whether a particular use of copyrighted material is a “fair use.” However, experienced attorneys can provide an opinion, based on their evaluation of the use using the four-factor test (see below) and their knowledge of case law.

What are the Four Factors?

Courts look at four factors when making a fair use determination

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

The application of these four factors is nuanced and often complicated, but in short, the use of a copyrighted work is not likely to be fair use if it is used for the same or a similar purpose for which it was originally intended or in advertising/marketing materials, uses a lot of the original work including its most important parts (what the courts have called “the heart of the work”), and/or is used in a manner that competes with the market for the original work. It is more likely to be fair use if the new use is “transformative” in that it comments on, critiques, or otherwise adds new meaning to the original work in some way, if only a small portion of the original work is used (i.e., only enough for the user to make their point), and if the original work is not being used to advertise or otherwise promote the new work or use. So, if a video talks about, for example, loot box mechanics or the historical treatment of race in gaming by using game clips as examples, commenting on and analyzing those clips, it is probably more likely from a legal perspective to be fair use than straight game footage.

Note, however, that there is no bright line amount of use that constitutes fair use. For example, you can never assume that “if you use less than 5%, that’s fair use” – courts have found using only a line or two of text or music to be infringing. If you are in doubt, you should speak to a lawyer.

Is Crediting Important?

It’s nice, and may be considered best practices or industry custom, but it’s generally not relevant for a legal determination of fair use.

Can’t I Use a Disclaimer?

In short, no. Those disclaimers that you see on YouTube stating “This is a fair use. No copyright infringement intended” are generally not legally relevant. There is a small chance that they could be helpful to you in determining the damages that you owe in the event that you are found to be infringing, however, because they may bear on whether your intent was “innocent” or “willful.”

What if I get a DMCA takedown notice? And if a website removes my video, do I have any recourse?

The DMCA notice and takedown process provides copyright owners with a way to request removal of their copyrighted work from a website or other internet service if they believe the use infringes their copyright. To benefit from the “safe harbor” from copyright infringement the DMCA provides ISPs, the website or platform must designate a registered agent to receive and process DMCA takedown notices.  DMCA notices must include certain specific information to comply with the law, and the registered agent of the ISP has the job of reviewing and determining whether to comply with the takedown request.

An ISP, such as a platform that hosts gaming content, does not have to comply with a DMCA notice if the notice does not fully comply with the legal requirements for a takedown notice. However, if an ISP does remove content following receipt of a DMCA notice, it must also promptly notify the party that posted the video. That party then can file a counternotice if it believes the content was wrongfully taken down, for instance if the use of the copyrighted work is likely to be a fair use.

Whether you’re a platform looking to benefit from the protections of the DMCA safe harbor, or a content creator looking to correct an improper takedown of your video content, you should consult with an attorney to make sure you’re in compliance with the DMCA’s requirements, and are not taking any actions that could potentially subject you to liability down the line.

Will I Be Sued For My Videogame Videos?

This is where we have good news. Because video game publishers largely view streaming and game-related media to be helpful to their business (under the theory that exposing more people to the game will increase sales), publishers rarely bring copyright infringement lawsuits against gamers. The exceptions where publishers do bring legal action tend to arise in instances where users create new installments of games (what lawyers and courts would call “derivative works”) without authorization, insert other infringing material into games via mods, create and sell software “cheats,” or do something that is offensive in addition to being infringing (e.g., adding explicit or hateful material). In recent years, major players such as Take-Two Interactive and Epic Games have actively policed these types of infringements of their copyrighted games.

This means that it isn’t always necessary to apply the fair use analysis outlined above. However, those creators who are seeking to make heavy commercial use of game assets (other than solely streaming/YouTube video revenue) should consult with an attorney before embarking on their plans to ensure compliance with copyright law.

One of the greatest challenges in defending claims of copyright infringement in the gaming space seems to be the wildcard of the judge’s expertise and understanding of the emerging fields of gaming and streaming. A key defense strategy will inevitably involve a careful framing of the discussion, including describing how the game works, what the purpose of the video is, explaining the meaning of common terms, and the context and communities in which these activities exist online.

Moreover, everyone should keep an eye on the risk factors listed below.

What Red Flags should I be aware of?

While the use of gaming footage in the form of livestreaming and “let’s play” type videos rarely results in a claim, there are a number of uses that creators should be particularly cautious about:

  • Licensed music: Any game video that features licensed popular music is more likely to cause an issue with the game creators and/or the owners of the rights in the music being used. Creators are generally fine with exhibiting those videos on YouTube (which has a blanket license with multiple labels), but uses of music in other contexts or on other sites could trigger a DMCA takedown or a copyright infringement claim.
  • Choreography: Any videos that use choreography or dance moves tend to pose a higher risk. There has been a spate of recent choreography-related claims alleging that games have made unauthorized use of protected dance moves, in particular against Epic Games for the use of short animations in its game Fortnite. Choreography is probably an overlooked area (versus other areas of copyright risk) and thus it is not a fait accompli that the game publisher will have secured the rights, so a video creator could be pulled into a potential lawsuit. Obviously dance-focused games are highest risk, but other games that include “celebration dances” are also a risk. While many recent choreography-related claims have failed because copyright law does not protect simple routines or common social dances, they are nonetheless costly to defend and could become increasingly risky as the law develops in this area.
  • Street Art and Tags:  Videos that include any kind of pre-existing graffiti or tags, or even original designs that closely resemble a pre-existing artwork, are similarly susceptible to a copyright infringement claim. Street artists have become notorious copyright infringement plaintiffs in recent years, and like choreography, game creators may not have cleared the rights to these works. The unauthorized use of graffiti may also raise trademark and right of publicity claims, depending on the context in which the tag is used.  
  • Athletes and other Identifiable Real People: Any gaming footage that includes the recognizable likenesses of real people (e.g., sports games) is susceptible to a claim. This is not actually a copyright issue, but rather falls under what lawyers call “right of publicity” (i.e., a person’s exclusive right to make commercial use of their name [or alias], likeness and other identifiable features). User-generated content that inserts a real person into a game via a mod could also trigger a claim of this type, particularly from celebrities who regularly monetize their names and likenesses.

Chambers USA 2018 Ranks Partners Lackman and Wolff as Top IP Attorneys; Recognizes Two Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP (CDAS) Practice Groups

Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP is delighted to announce that partners Eleanor M. Lackman and Nancy E. Wolff and both CDAS’s Entertainment and IP, Copyright and Litigation Practices have been recognized by Chambers and Partners in the Chambers USA 2018: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business guide.

Eleanor M. Lackman

Nancy E. Wolff

This is the fifth consecutive year Ms. Lackman and the second consecutive year Ms. Wolff have been ranked in the Chambers USA guide. They are both among just 41 New York lawyers ranked in the field of “Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets – New York.”

“Impressed sources” told Chambers that Ms. Lackman is “an absolutely incredible trademark litigator” and added: “She is very practical and always seems to make the right call.” She also has notable experience handling copyright matters, often advising clients across the media and entertainment industries.

Chambers describes Ms. Wolff as “very well-known and well-respected.” She receives plaudits for her expertise in a range of complex copyright matters and is highlighted for her particular skill across the photography and visual art industry.

CDAS’s Entertainment Practice was awarded a regional designation of “Noted Firm” in “Media & Entertainment: Film, Music, Television & Theater – New York” for the third consecutive year, while the Firm’s IP, Copyright and Litigation Practice received a  “Noted Firm” designation in “Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets – New York” for the second consecutive year.

The annual guide ranks law firms and lawyers based on in-depth interviews with clients and lawyers, technical legal ability, professional conduct, client service, commercial astuteness, diligence, commitment, and other qualities most valued by the client.

A Coming Change: KodakOne Attempts to Prevent Unlicensed Use of Pictures

On January 9th, Kodak announced its intention to enter the cryptocurrency craze by developing a blockchain-based service that presumably allow participating photographers to get paid each time their licensed work is used on the Internet without their prior consent. As described on the company’s website, the digital platform, currently referred to as KODAKOne, will “provide continual web crawling to monitor and protect the [intellectual property] of images registered in the KODAKOne system.” Upon detection of an unlicensed use, Kodak will manage the post-licensing process and (i) have the picture removed, or (ii) compensate the participating photographer in the company’s own currency, referred to as KodakCoin. By December 11th, the company’s stock had more than tripled. Continue reading

Appellate Victory for “The Neighbors” Photographer against Right of Privacy Claim

Arne Svenson, a New York-based fine art photographer, prevailed on an appeal before the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department, filed by plaintiffs Martha and Matthew Foster, who had unsuccessfully sought to prevent the display, promotion, or sale of certain photographs from Svenson’s popular series “The Neighbors” by invoking New York’s right of privacy statute.  A unanimous panel of the court held that Svenson’s photographs – taken with a telephoto camera lens without his subjects’ knowledge – “is not actionable as a statutory tort of invasion of privacy” because “the images in question constituted art work and, thus [are] not deemed ‘use for advertising or trade purposes,’ within the meaning of the [privacy] statute.”  The court noted that the plaintiffs’ complaints were “best addressed to the Legislature” given the narrow scope of New York’s privacy law. Continue reading

Copyright Trumps Right of Publicity – Permitting Display and Download of Basketball Photographs (Maloney v. T3Media, Inc.)

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Maloney v. T3Media, Inc. recently held that state right-of-publicity claims brought by former college basketball players complaining of photographs licensed of their likenesses without consent warranted dismissal with prejudice pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which prohibits suits aimed at inhibiting free expression.  Members of the 2001 NCAA Division III champion Catholic University basketball team sued T3Media, a cloud storage, hosting, and digital licensing service, alleging violations of their rights of publicity when photographs of the players from the NCAA championship were displayed and made available for licensing on T3Media’s website.

Continue reading

CDAS Partner Nancy Wolff’s Webinar Available Online

Recently, CDAS Partner Nancy Wolff hosted a webinar for the Digital Media Licensing Association which answered common questions about when you need releases when using visual images. The webinar is now available online for free, and is a useful resource for anyone publishing or displaying still or motion images and wondering whether permissions are needed from the subjects or property owners depicted in the content. The webinar footage can be found here.

Seventh Circuit Affirms Fair Use of Mayor’s Photograph, and Criticizes Second Circuit’s Approach in Cariou v. Prince

Note: This blog is cross-posted with permission from CopyrightAlliance.org.

Photographer Michael Kienitz (“Kienitz”) appealed the Western District Court of Wisconsin’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of Sconnie Nation LLC and its vendor, Underground Printing-Wisconsin LLC (collectively, “defendants” or “Sconnie Nation”), contending defendants were liable for copyright infringement in connection with their unauthorized use of plaintiff’s photograph. Michael Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation LLC and Underground Printing-Wisconsin LLC, No. 13-3004 (7th Cir. Sept. 15, 2014). The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, agreeing that defendants’ use of the photograph constituted a fair use. The central issue in this appeal was whether the Sconnie Nation had a valid fair use defense for its modified version of Kienitz’s copyrighted photograph. Continue reading

Copyright on the Wild Side

With a Push of a Button, Monkey Raises New Question About Copyright Authorship and Ownership of Photographs

It’s been theorized that if you give a million monkeys a million typewriters, they will eventually produce the entire collected works of William Shakespeare. It’s been proven, however, that if a troupe of monkeys steals a camera, one will eventually take a really good selfie. By now you’ve probably heard this story, but just in case, the facts are as follows.

In 2011, British wildlife photographer David Slater traveled to the forests of Indonesia, equipment in tow, to follow and photograph the endangered crested black macaque species of monkey. According to news reports, during his trip, Slater set up his camera and tripod and briefly stepped away, and when he came back, a group of macaques had, in the words of The Telegraph, “hijacked” his camera, ultimately taking hundreds of shots. Many of the shots were, as expected, blurry or otherwise unusable, but several actually came out quite well, including a crystal-clear selfie of a female macaque showing off her large amber eyes and huge toothy grin. Slater sold the image to several publications, and soon the story – and the selfie – caught fire in the media, filling inches in the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Washington Post, among other media outlets. The selfie soon ended up on Wikimedia Commons (owned by the parent company of Wikipedia), which is advertised as a repository of over 22.3 million free public domain images. Continue reading