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).