White House Photographer Threatened Over His Own Public Domain Photo

Clinton and Obama
Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton on Air Force One, 2009 | Pete Souza

Former Chief White House photographer Pete Souza says he is being threatened with legal action over the use of his own photo that he took of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The 2009 photo that Souza took of then president aboard Air Force One with Clinton, who was U.S. secretary of state, was claimed by entertainment picture agency WENN.

Souza, 67, posted to his Instagram account yesterday to reveal that a copyright enforcement company had notified him of the claim. “You can’t make this up,” he writes.

“We were flying from London to Paris during President Obama’s first overseas trip as president,” Souza explains.

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had joined us aboard the plane, and she and her staff were manifested in what’s called the staff cabin.”

Souza says that he took the candid photo from a hallway and later posted the file to Flickr “as part of a gallery on the President’s first 100 days.”

“By doing so, it immediately made the photograph in the public domain. (There is no copyright involved in official White House photos)⁣,” he adds.

After Souza departed the White House in 2017 he included the photo on his website in a photo gallery of the former president.

Souza names the copyright enforcement firm as Copytrack which says that Souza is using WENN’s photo without permission.

“I’ve responded to Copytrack, and their response was that I am ‘legally obligated to compensate our customer for the damage caused by this copyright infringement,'” writes Souza.

“So to recap: I made this photograph. It is in the public domain. WENN is licensing this image for publication. Copytrack is threatening to file legal action against me for displaying this photograph on my website, since their partner WENN claims they own the copyright to the image.⁣”

An Error

PetaPixel spoke to WENN CEO Lloyd Beiny who says that the takedown notice is an error.

“Most photo agencies, including WENN, get sent PR photos from numerous organizations who appreciate their images being distributed to media outlets on their behalf. It would appear that is what occurred in this instance,” explains Beiny.

“Copytrack are employed by WENN to seek out and solicit compensation for photographers whose works have been published without obvious permission having been granted. On this occasion it appears that the photo in question found its way into a group of images being pursued by Copytrack in error.

“I have informed Copytrack to immediately drop the matter and confirm this to Mr Souza .”

Pete Souza in 2018 | Gamaliel

Souza served as the official photographer during Obama’s two terms in office, and under Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1989.

He was given virtually unrestricted access to the 44th president at the White House, during official events, and on overseas tours. He created an archive of 1.9 million photographs of Obama.

Public Domain

Souza is not the only photographer who has been sent a threatening letter for using one of his own public domain photos.

Photographer Carol Highsmith brought a $1 billion lawsuit against Getty Images after discovering the giant photo agency was licensing her public domain photos.

Highsmith only found out after she was sent a letter demanding payment for using one of her own images. Her case was thrown out of court.

Image credits:Header photo by Pete Souza/Official White House.