A federal appeals court has re-instated stock photo agency Alaska Stock's copyright infringement claim against textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin, reversing a lower court decision to dismiss the case on the grounds that the stock agency had registered its images improperly.
The decision means that Alaska Stock now gets the opportunity to try its copyright claims in court.
The case is a victory for photographers and other copyright owners because it upholds a streamlined process for registering images in bulk as a collected work. Specifically, the court affirmed the authority of the US Copyright office "to grant registration to individual stock photographs within a collection where the names of each of the photographers, and titles for each of the photographs, were not provided on the registration forms."
"The livelihoods of photographers and stock agencies have long been founded on their compliance with the Register's reasonable interpretation of the [copyright] statute," the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said in its decision. "Denying the fruits of reliance by citizens on a longstanding administrative practice reasonably construing a statute is unjust."
The ruling came in the case of Alaska Stock v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which began in 2009 when Alaska Stock sued the publisher for using Alaska Stock images well beyond the scope of the original usage license. In particular, the publisher "greatly exceeded" the print run limit of the license it had paid for.
Houghton Mifflin challenged the claim on the grounds that Alaska Stock had improperly registered the images in question. (Federal law requires valid registration of any copyrighted work that is the subject of a federal copyright claim.)
Alaska Stock had registered the images in bulk, as a catalogue, listing names of only three photographers, and describing the images in general, but not listing a title for each photograph.
The district court agreed with Houghton Mifflin that Alaska Stock's registration was "defective" because the agency had not provided the names of each of the photographers and the titles of each of the photographs in its registration application, as required "unambiguously" by law, according to the district court decision.
But the appeals court overturned that decision because it conflicted with a long-standing practice by the Register of Copyrights, undercut the legal authority of the Register of Copyrights to establish procedures of copyright registration--and amounted to a misreading of copyright law by the district court.
The appeals court noted that for more than 30 years, owners of collected works--notably magazines and newspaper publishers--have been legally registering both the collected work and the individual underlying works with one application, without listing all the authors or titles of the individual works. To do otherwise would put an undue burden on applicants and the Register of Copyrights, the court noted
The one caveat to that practice is that applicants for registration must own copyright to the collected work and all the underlying works, the appeals court noted.
In its decision, the appeals court also validated a 1995 letter from the Register of Copyright to the Picture Agency Council of America (PACA) prescribing a method for registering large catalogues of images. "The Register agreed that a stock agency could register both a catalog of images and the individual photographs in the catalog in one application if the photographers temporarily transferred their copyright to the stock agency for the purposes of registration," the appeals court said in its ruling.
Alaska Stock did exactly that, asking its photographers to transfer copyrights to the agency for the purpose of registering the images in bulk, and then filing a registration application for a CD catalogue of images. (The agency arranged to transfer copyrights back to the photographers after the registration was completed.)
In reviewing the registration requirements spelled out under copyright law, the appeals court said the law requires only that copyright owners provide a title of the collected work and a description (not titles) of the underlying works. Alaska Stock met that requirement, the appeals court said, by registering the images as a collected work called "Alaska Stock CD catalog 4," and by identifying the underlying works as "CD catalog of stock photos" on its registration form.
The appeals court said the statue requires the name of the author of "the work"--ie, the collected work, not every author of the the individual works. The stock agency met the requirement by listing itself [Alaska Stock] as the author of the collective work, the appeals court said.
The appeals court noted that Houghton Mifflin's arguments have prevailed in several district court decisions in other similar cases, "but we do not agree with them," the appeals court added.
In those cases, the courts threw out copyright claims because the registrations were "defective," i.e., they did not list all the image authors and image titles.
Three of those cases were filed in the Ninth Circuit. One case was settled; two others are under appeal, and will probably be re-instated because of the Alaska Stock decision. "Judges in the Ninth Circuit have to follow the ruling of the court of appeals" in that circuit, says Maurice Harmon, who represents the plaintiffs in all the cases, including the Alaska Stock case.
A fourth case is on appeal in New York, which is in the Second Circuit. Judges there are not bound by the Ninth Circuit decision in the Alaska Stock case. But Harmon believes judges in other circuits "will take it into consideration.
"We think that at the court of appeals level, we're starting to get momentum for all of these cases," he adds.
Harmon also says, "It galls me that these [textbook] publishers, who use compilation registrations [to protect their own works], would turn their backs on the very thing they rely on to win a technical victory to take the courthouse keys away from photographers.
"But they know that once a photographer gets in the door of the courthouse, the publishers are not going to get away with this copyright infringement."