Copyright and Karma: Photographer Sues UNICEF for Allegedly Exceeding License

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Shavar Ross

Wow.  Is it always wise to sue?

A pho­tog­ra­pher who was hired (and paid) by the United Nations’ inter­na­tional children’s char­ity, UNICEF, has sued the char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tion for copy­right infringe­ment.
The photographer’s com­pany, William Anthony Pho­tog­ra­phy, Inc., alleged that although UNICEF paid him in full for sev­eral photo shoots fea­tur­ing promi­nent celebri­ties for use in a fund-raising cam­paign, he only granted UNICEF a license to use the pho­tos for a BELIEVE IN ZERO “print cam­paign.”  WAP alleges that UNICEF exceeded this license by also fea­tur­ing the pho­tographs on things like bill­boards, buses and trains, air­port video dis­plays and illu­mi­nated sub­way dis­plays.  By doing so, WAP claims that UNICEF infringed its copy­rights in the photographs.

Among the relief sought by the pho­tog­ra­pher is UNICEF’s rev­enues derived from the fundrais­ing cam­paign.  No word yet on whether the plain­tiff intends to seek an injunc­tion to stop UNICEF from feed­ing starv­ing chil­dren or assist­ing child refugees so the “ill got­ten gains” are not dis­si­pated…    Also no word on whether UNICEF will pay any poten­tial judg­ment in Hal­loween penny boxes.

Seri­ously, though, even if the alleged uses did exceed the scope of the license (likely a fact-intensive inquiry, espe­cially because the alleged restric­tion is vague and was only included uni­lat­er­ally on some of the photographer’s invoices), it would seem unlikely that any judge or jury would impose a high statu­tory dam­age award on these alleged facts.  And what would the rea­son­able roy­alty for the expanded use really be?   The plain­tiff admits in the com­plaint that he charged UNICEF a reduced rate in recog­ni­tion of UNICEF’s char­i­ta­ble mis­sion (appar­ently from a sense of com­pas­sion that quickly dis­si­pated).  So how much more would have been charged if the addi­tional uses were expressly included in the work order?  Is it really worth suing over?

Here is the complaint:







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