Judge Rules News Agencies Cannot Use Twitter Photos Without Permission


In one of the first major tests of intellectual property law involving social media services, a judge has ruled that news agencies cannot freely publish photographs posted to Twitter without the photographer’s permission.

It’s the latest development in a case we’ve been following quite closely since it broke back in 2010. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti that year, photojournalist Daniel Morel captured a photo of a woman trapped beneath rubble, and then shared the image through his Twitter account.

News organizations (including the Agence France-Presse) then took that photograph and distributed it to various publications (including The Washington Post), which published it without Morel’s permission.

Morel's photograph was published on the front pages of newspapers around the world without his permission

Morel’s photograph was published on the front pages of newspapers around the world without his permission

When Morel sent out cease and desist letters to the agencies, the AFP argued that there was no copyright infringement in this case. To add insult to injury, the AFP decided to launch a lawsuit against Morel for “antagonistic assertion of rights.”

Now, nearly three years later, District Judge Alison Nathan of Manhattan has issued a ruling that the two news companies had improperly used the Twitter image, and that the use constituted copyright infringement.

While AFP argued that the photographs could be freely used since they were freely available online, Nathan determined that Twitters ToS doesn’t give news agencies permission to publish its photos without permission (despite the fact that it does give users permission to “retweet” photos).

It was also revealed today that Morel had been seeking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in damages based on the number of uses, the judge decided to limit the statutory damages to the number of photos used without permission (which will be an amount far less).

Additional rulings will come when the case goes to trial (which doesn’t have a set date yet). Many eyes will be on the case, as it has major implications for photographers’ rights and whether photos published to social networks can be used in commercial contexts.

(via Reuters)

Image credit: Illustration based on Haiti is on the front page of the NYTimes today. by LindsayT… and Fail Whale by Yiying Lu

  • Attila Volgyi

    I was hoping for such ruling. I’m happy the judge ruled as he should’ve done it!
    It’s no surprise really, but I think it relieves quite a few photographers.

  • Hlarn


  • Sean Smyth

    Yeah, it really pisses me off. I’ve seen loads of blogs just ripping photos off twitter feeds and posting them along with the story. Luckily I’ve not seen it with my photos but if it did, I’d be mighty peeved!

  • kate

    A good ruling. Just because something is online doesn’t mean it’s free for use. Shared, well, that’s like telling a story, it’s not commercial usage, and it’s still the person’s original work. Good protection now.

  • Adam

    This surprises me as in Australia such use would be automatically illegal as copyright is assigned upon the creation of a work. Even if a person posts their work to Flickr, Twitter, Facebook et cetera, third parties cannot use that image legally without permission unless the creator has willingly surrendered their rights to that party.

    Clearly US copyright law is rather different.

  • vitor mota

    some idiots even scan printed work and republish it on facebook :-()

  • Robert Catto

    Adam, the argument wasn’t whether he owned the copyright or not – it was whether he’d granted a license to Twitter through their Terms Of Service, which in turn extended to the media outlets who decided to use it. They were arguing that the Terms Of Service permitted their (free) use of his work…seems they were wrong.

  • Dan Howard


  • Attila Volgyi

    AFP and Getty tried to play this excuse but actually this was a pretty lame try I think. Even Twitter said they didn’t mean their TOS that way – and the agencies should’ve known better. They simply cannot be that foolish.
    I have the (almost like a conspiracy) theory they decided to get a ruling to help their business model coming. If they get it right to use Tweeted photos then they have tons of free stuff to sell. If they loose this case they can get the message out and more fuel to their own pending copyright cases worldwide…

  • val escobar

    Seriously there is a vast different between re-tweeting within the same social media vs printing it and distributing it for a fee.
    Why didn’t they just ask, and toss the dude some bills?

  • Renato Murakami

    It took too long, but I’m glad for the ruling.
    I mean, really, this should’ve been an open-and-shut case.
    No ToS should ever be able supersede photojournalism copyright over intellectual property, period. This is what the law should be, as clear as possible, so there is no further discussions when social networks and image sharing websites changes their ToS.
    Unless explicity stated by the author him/herself, like in cases of copyleft or creative commons (and even in those cases there are exceptions for commercial use), AFP and Washington Post should have payed and get fined as quickly as possible.
    Even further, agencies as big as them should suffer penalties for making such claims since they are obviously making excuses… what sort of agency says crap like “if it’s freely available on the internet, it can be freely used”? Are those agencies run by 8yr olds or something? Anyone graduated in journalism there? Hello?
    With excuses like those they get time and force their hand since it’s big corporations throwing money at big law firms against one photojournalist.
    Congrats to Morel for sticking to it to the end, most people wouldn’t.

  • Rippie

    Interesting. I’m involved in a reverse instance of IP violations involving all third parties with Tumblr, who were nearly put out of business for not only permitting, but providing tools to poach photos from Flickr, among other sources, in their first year. They are not taking their responsibilities to act against clear IP Violators when pointed out, and seem to not understand that Safe Haven protection disappears the instant they are made aware of a problem and do nothing about it.

    The Web is not a free-for-all Public Domain smorgasbord of orphaned content. Protecting the rights of small IP creators is as important as those of the big companies who have been trying to game the system to steal the work of the little guy.

    This decision helps to set that ship on a straight course again, in line with the defeat of the very badly written SOPA and PIPA legislation that bombed last year.

    I suspect that there will end up having to be an Industry protection for all SocNets that automatically makes attribution and home-links ALWAYS appear with any re-blogging of any sort, even across platforms, say, from flickr to twitter to reddit, so that it always points back to the site and page of origin, and the original poster, who is presumable the owner. In the event they are not the legal owner, it would allow the legal owner to know who started the cascade of losses with their IP.

    Will that happen? Maybe. Reblogging shouldn’t be stopped altogether, but people should not lose ownership of their property in the process… or control over it.

  • Paul Thompson

    This should apply to all social media including photo sharing sites.
    I took some photos of Jolene Van Vugt from Nitro Circus breaking the land speed record on a motorized toilet. One was used on her blog: Porcelain Princess. I got credit for the photo. Later I found the photo on a German News website (slightly cropped). No credit or payment was given to me. Neither was permission asked.

  • Geofk

    Good on them. However in South Africa our law says that “Copyright shall not be infringed by any fair dealing with a literary or musical work–for the purpose of reporting current events”. This provision was promulgated in 1978 and hasn’t been tested in a new media context. Could be very interesting

  • Erik Lauri Kulo


  • Mansgame

    This needs to extend to everywhere- reddit for instance uses pictures from anywhere they find, steal, and put on imgur. If you didn’t take the picture or pay someone who took the picture, the picture is not yours. It’s not complicated.

  • bouchsnaps

    When I picked up my first DSLR, one of my first shots was of a young man being arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, he was in handcuffs being led by police to the officers car – I contacted the local newspaper (It made national press but I was a total newbie to photography/media etc) and they said they would publish it with a photo credit (to me totally meaningless nowadays I’m sorry but true). Anyway, they published it.
    Two or three weeks later, they put an article on I think their front or second page saying that sales were up so much in the week my photo was used (it was used on the front page at the time and was big news in the local area as well as the nearest city where the young girl came from). I can only conclude that the sales were up becuase of the picture.

  • bob cooley

    Actually US Copyright is exactly the same -see @robertcatto:disqus ‘s
    comment, I was just about to write something similar, then noticed he already posted it.

    I find it amusing (in a hypocritical sort of way that

    “AFP argued that the photographs could be freely used since they were freely available online”
    since AFP posts images to both Twitter and Facebook – following their argument, everyone would have free access to their content as well. I’ll eat my hat if that is what they intend.

    Bottom line, News (and picture) agencies have their own IP departments to try and stop this exact type of behavior – they just want to have their cake and eat it too.

  • doesntmatter

    And how much does the woman on the picture get?


  • Anno Hito

    She took the picture?

  • Anno Hito


  • Anno Hito

    How could you so badly misunderstand copyright?
    Copyright does NOT say “I own this thing and I says what goes!”, because there’s this thing called “fair use” which allows for non-commercial (and some, limited, forms of commercial) re-use of copyrighted media.
    This case was NOT about that; it was about large-scale, for-profit, COMMERCIAL, deliberate copyright infringement by newspaper publishers, who of all people should know better.

  • Anno Hito

    Well… lesson learned?
    You gave them permission without knowing what you were doing, because if you had done a little homework, you would’ve been paid for it, but didn’t.

  • Anno Hito

    Did you do anything about it?

  • davidvidgen

    Bravo to the judge for displaying common sense. As a professional birmingham wedding photographer I post images to my website every week, but that does not give anyone permission to use them and definitely not distribute them! I also use twitter, and accept that by uploading wedding images I give permission for them to be retweeted – but within the twitter community. The same also applies for facebook and other social media outlets.

    Really it’s a lesson for us all to ensure that any image that is used on a third party site is well watermarked to deter such infringement. Of course photoshop experts will be able to rectify this matter, but should it happen you can also argue that the infringing party has deliberately removed the watermark in an attempt to parse off either as their own or failing to attribute the works to the owner. I’m sure judges will take a dim view to this!

  • Carol Cain

    Such great news!

  • James

    I think when a company regardless of the situation says something like that, it should be held against they to the full extent of the law. They try to assert that you don’t own what you post to twitter, and are willing to say that in court, then they should lose all legal protection of their IP in that manor. Same for this whole hobby lobby deal the second that they said that those products where immoral they should have been stripped on their stock in those companies.