Photographer Daniel Morel did not grant media companies a blanket license to publish his pictures of the earthquake in Haiti by linking to them on Twitter, a court has ruled.
The decision, issued this week by U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley III in New York, clears the way for Morel to proceed with a copyright infringement lawsuit against the wire service Agence France Presse, Getty Images and other media companies including CBS and Turner Broadcasting System.
Morel sued Agence France Presse and the other companies for copyright infringement after they allegedly published photos of the earthquake that Morel himself had shot on Jan. 12 -- the day of the earthquake -- then uploaded to Twitpic and linked to on Twitter.
The circumstances that led to the photos' publication are somewhat convoluted. After Morel uploaded his shots, Dominican Republican resident Lisandro Suero -- who is not a photographer -- reposted them to his own Twitpic page and also took credit for the pictures.
Shortly after Morel posted the photos, he was contacted by an editor at AFP seeking permission to use them. Before receiving a response, however, AFP allegedly downloaded 13 of the pictures from Suero's page. Those shots were then allegedly licensed by Getty to other news organizations -- who credited Suero with taking them.
In March, Morel's lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to the AFP and other news outlets, but some nonetheless allegedly continued publishing the photos -- and crediting them to Suero.
Agence France Presse then went to court to seek a declaratory judgment that it had the right to use Morel's photos because he had posted them on Twitter. (Agence France Presse's initial court papers did not reference Twitpic -- where Morel had actually uploaded his photos.) "Pursuant to the Twitter terms of service, by posting his photographs on Twitter, Mr. Morel granted Twitter a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license, with the right to sub-license others, to use, copy, publish, display and distribute those photographs," Agence France Presse argued. "Indeed, upon information and belief, most users of Twitter use its services in order to broadly disseminate the material that they post."
At the time, Twitter's terms of service provided that users who submit content to Twitter grant the service "a worldwide non-exclusive, royalty-free license" to distribute that material. But the terms of service also said that users still owned their content and that the purpose of the license was to authorize Twitter to "make your tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same."
Morel disputed that he had given away the licensing rights to his photos and countersued Agence France Presse and other companies for copyright infringement.
Pauley sided with Morel, ruling that Agence France Presse and the other companies did not show they had a license to use Morel's photos. The decision doesn't necessarily mean that Morel will prevail. Instead, it leaves him in a position to gather evidence for trial from AFP and the other companies and also gives him leverage in settlement talks.
Last month, Morel settled with ABC -- one of the news organizations that used the photos.