The worlds of social media and image copyright collided Friday when a judge ordered two media companies to pay $1.2 million to photographer Daniel Morel. The images of the 2010 devastating earthquakes in Haiti were taken from the photojournalist’s Twitter account and used without his authorization by both the Agence France-Presse and Getty Images.

Why is This Relevant?

This ruling provides insight into the highly debated question of who owns images posted publicly to social media services like Twitter; and moreover, whether they can be used for commercial purposes by third parties.

The short answer is “no.”

While users can embed tweets with photos and retweet photos, these images cannot be downloaded and used commercially, even if they are taken from a “retweet” and not directly from the original user’s account.

Moreover, in this case, they were sold to clients like the Washington Post and others. According to Joseph Baio, Daniel Morel’s Lawyer, “We believe that this is the first time that these defendants or any other major digital licensor of photography have been found liable for willful violations of the Copyright Act”

The AFP lawyer attributed the infringement to a mistake and said they believed the photos were posted for public distribution.

Other Facts

  • AFP had asked for the award to be set at $120,000.
  • The photos were disseminated to Getty’s clients, including television networks and the Washington Post
  • During the trial, the lawyer for Getty, said Morel was asking the jury “to make him the best paid news photographer on the planet.”
  • $1.2 million was the maximum statutory penalty available under the Copyright Act.