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When photo rights go wrong

A landmark ruling by a US judge has showed that news companies cannot use photos posted to social media without the copyright holder's permission.

Earlier this week, a US judge found that photographs originally posted to Twitter by photographer Daniel Morel were used without permission or appropriate credit by two global news outlets.

The photos, depicting the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake in 2010, were used across the world by Agence France-Presse (AFP) and The Washington Post to cover the unfolding events in the region.

Twitter's terms of service (TOS) permit content to be shared through retweets, but this does not automatically give commercial enterprises licences to use the content as well, District Judge Alison Nathan said. The entire ruling is available to read here, and it also covers the involvement of Getty Images in distributing the photos.

The ruling has ramifications not only for photographers, but for any media company or individual who reposts and publishes content from social-media sites without permission from the original copyright holder. Among other findings, Judge Nathan found that the news agencies infringed Morel's copyright.

(Lost Photos image by Hugo Humberto Plácido da Silva, royalty free)

Incidents involving photographic rights and social media have become increasingly high profile over the past year. Instagram became embroiled in a rights snafu at the end of 2012 when it released a proposed change to its TOS, which gave permission for the service to license its users' photos without permission or remuneration for advertising purposes.

Facebook's recent unveiling of Graph Search is also a veritable minefield for photo rights. This official Facebook note was quick to point out how Graph Search could make it incredibly easy for journalists to find sources for a story — particularly photo sources.

While the note points out that news outlets need to seek permission to use photographic content, it's more often than not that this crucial step just doesn't happen.

If you're a photographer, naturally you want to be credited and remunerated for your work. Reverse-engineering search tools to track where your photos have been used around the web are available, but can often be more time consuming than they're worth. Skipping straight to Facebook or another social-media platform makes it so easy to source visual content about current affairs or newsworthy topics without needing to bother with the traditional method of licensing images for commercial purposes.

Using images without permission or payment is endemic in the online media environment. Rather than paying for photo rights through the proper channels or relying on images from staff photographers and agencies, anyone with a smartphone has the potential to be an instant visual source. It's an environment that prioritises being "first" with a story, rather than getting permission to use an image.

There have been countless examples where certain publications have jumped to publish a story and photo, and in some cases even refused payment to a photographer for using their image. The excuse? Because the photo was posted to a social-media site, meaning it was in the public domain and fair game.

Media outlets are not alone in using images without permission. Even major retailers have failed to license photos properly.

Further rulings on the Morel case are still to come, though the current findings should send strong messages to media outlets and other companies that try to use images without correct licensing or seeking permission first.