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Judge: News agencies shouldn't have used Twitter photos

A judge rules that the AFP news agency and The Washington Post infringed on the copyrights of a photographer by publishing images that he'd posted to Twitter.

Users can easily search for public photos on Twitter.
Screenshot by CNET

A Manhattan judge has decided that news organizations can't publish photos they find on Twitter without permission, because the photos are protected by copyright, Reuters reported.

The judge determined that the AFP news agency and The Washington Post infringed on the copyrights of photographer Daniel Morel when they published photos he took and posted on Twitter after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.

AFP had argued that because the images were on Twitter, they were publicly available, but District Judge Alison Nathan pointed to Twitter's terms of service, which do not give news organizations the ability to publish images without the photographer's permission.

The decision, released late Monday, is an answer to one of the first cases addressing intellectual property and social media. But the case isn't over yet. The judge hasn't addressed several other issues, including Getty's alleged infringement.

An AFP editor discovered Morel's photos through another Twitter user's account. Morel accused AFP of improperly using his photos, so the news agency decided to file a lawsuit to prove otherwise. In response, Morel countersued AFP, Getty Images, and The Washington Post, and now it looks like he's won at least one point.

The judge put a restriction on how much money Morel could collect from the suit.

Morel had asked for "tens or hundreds of millions of dollars" in statutory damages by collecting from each subscriber that used the image distributed by AFP. This included The Post. The newspaper published the images from Getty, which got them from AFP. The judge said only AFP and Getty would have to pay, and they would pay only a single amount for each image infringed.

Users of social media often take issue with questions of copyright and ownership. The question has caused a panic for sites like Facebook and, more recently, Instagram, when the photo-sharing site changed its terms of use and suggested it owned users' photos. The move prompted a public backlash that made Instagram revert to its old policy.