Hero or Villain? Prolific ‘Copyright Troll’ Lawyer Disbarred in NY

Richard Liebowitz
Richard Liebowitz delivering a presentation on copyright protection at B&H Optic 2019. Photo by King of Hearts and used via CC BY-SA 4.0. As per the Creative Commons agreement, it is important to note that this image has been cropped from its original form.

Attorney Richard P. Liebowitz has been disbarred by the Supreme Court of the State of New York following a lengthy years-long suspension.

Liebowitz, founder and former principal of Liebowitz Law Firm, is one of the most prominent copyright lawyers in history, having represented many photographers in cases of image theft. At the start of his disciplinary hearings in the New York District Court for the Southern District of New York, Liebowitz had initiated around 2,500 federal cases.

A Champion to Some and a Thorn in the Side of Others

Opinions on Liebowitz are exceptionally polarized. For some, he helped them fight a giant corporation or enterprise that had stolen their photo(s), enabling them to win back wholly deserved compensation.

To others, primarily those who have played it fast and loose with photographers’ work, Liebowitz is described as a “copyright troll,” a person who shadily scours the web, slinging legal threats every which way, hoping for a quick payout. Some companies would rather pay a relatively minor settlement than deal with the courts, and some lawyers thrive in this lane. Some may consider this the lawyer equivalent of throwing darts and seeing what you can hit.

Richard Liebowitz disbarred in New York

‘Copyright Troll’

Regarding the term “copyright troll,” American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) Chief Legal Officer Thomas Maddrey recommends caution.

“I think that the term ‘copyright troll’ is often used for any person or lawyer who tries to enforce their rights,” Maddrey tells PetaPixel by telephone. “You often hear from business owners who have been contacted by intellectual property attorneys, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I heard from this copyright troll trying to shake me down.’ But what’s really happening here is they’re trying to enforce their rights.”

As for Liebowitz, Maddrey says that what separates him from many other attorneys is the sheer number of cases he worked on, especially in New York, and his “seeming focus on pursuing things beyond settlements.”

“What I mean is, whereas many attorneys try to advise their clients to have a fair and just settlement for what the copyright infringement matter entailed, there was a sense from some of his clients that [Liebowitz] would push too far beyond what was a traditional settlement.”

Years of Legal Misconduct

Liebowitz has also been troublesome to the legal system itself. His list of misconduct is as severe as it is lengthy. Granted, some of the sheer amount of misconduct results from the incredible number of cases Liebowitz has worked.

In November 2020, he committed one of the cardinal sins of being a lawyer, “knowingly making a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or failing to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made to a tribunal.” With a bit less legalese, Liebowitz was found to have lied during legal proceedings.

He has also been found guilty of advising clients to disregard rules, another major no-no.

Richard Liebowitz disbarred in New York

Perhaps most damning, the District Court of the Southern District of New York says that Liebowitz has engaged in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation,” “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice,” and “conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness as a lawyer.”

Liebowitz was suspended for four years for these offenses.

Contemporaneously with this suspension, investigations found that Liebowitz had failed to comply with court orders and made false statements to the court in 14 federal lawsuits.

One of the most offensive and well-known examples of misconduct occurred in April 2019, when Liebowitz missed a vital hearing, later claiming that it was because his grandfather had passed away.

The presiding judge, the Honorable Judge Seibel, suspected some misrepresentation and requested evidence or documentation that Liebowitz’s grandfather had passed away. This situation escalated and went on for months.

Richard Liebowitz disbarred in New York

Liebowitz finally produced a death certificate and settled his sanctions more than six months later. While the contempt finding was lifted, Judge Seibel referred Liebowitz to the Committee on Grievances for repeated failure to comply with court orders.

The 14 noted cases demonstrating Liebowitz’s misconduct reflect a pattern of bad faith behavior, failure to comply with court orders, and making misleading and false statements.

Disbarment Almost Seemed Inevitable

In a June 2020 order that imposed sanctions on Liebowitz, Judge Furman said, “There may be no sanction short of disbarment that would stop Mr. Liebowitz from further misconduct.” Nearly four years later, that’s where the situation ultimately ended up.

“Under the totality of the circumstances, including the considerable pattern and practice of failing to comply with court directives and making false statements to the court, we find that a disbarment is warranted,” writes Darrell M. Joseph, Acting Clerk of the Supreme Court of New York.

Disbarment is a severe punishment and bans Liebowitz from practicing law in New York in any form, including as a clerk or employee of another attorney, appearing as an attorney before any court or public authority, providing legal opinions to anyone, and presenting himself as any sort of attorney and counselor-at-law.

“I think rightly so, disbarment is a very high hurdle. You are taking away the livelihood of someone who spent years in school. So I think the hurdle is pretty high to be disbarred,” Maddrey says. “Here, there seemed to be repeated instances of concern for the state of New York that resulted in his disbarment.”

This isn’t the first time Richard Liebowitz’s name has appeared on PetaPixel. In 2020, when Judge Furman suggested that disbarring Liebowitz may be the only way to stop the misconduct, , the judge also hit Liebowitz with a $103,500 fine.

Liebowitz only began practicing law in 2015 following earlier work as a photojournalist.

Richard Liebowitz disbarred in New York

Success Comes At a Cost: Gumming Up the Legal Gears

Liebowitz knows first-hand that photographers can — and do — have their rights violated and that the legal system is the primary way to reach a satisfactory resolution. With so many photographers operating as sole proprietors or perhaps not working professionally as photographers at all, it can be really difficult for people to understand and protect their rights.

In some, arguably many, cases, Liebowitz helped photographers. Many of his clients have nothing but good things to say about the ex-lawyer.

However, for photographers who didn’t hire Liebowitz, his vast caseload could hinder their legal efforts.

“Let’s just say there has been some copyright infringement exhaustion on the part of some of the courts based on such a high volume of cases,” Maddrey says, alluding to the risk of a lawyer, like Liebowitz, bringing so many copyright cases to court. “And so you want to have as level a playing field as possible because it’s already hard to be a photographer. It’s already hard to try to enforce your rights and your copyrights. And so anything that detracts from that is obviously of some concern.”

Arguably, a lawyer contributing to any sort of legal exhaustion is a concern to everyone else, clients and others alike.

Richard Liebowitz disbarred in New York

What Can Photographers Do to Protect Their Rights?

Maddrey is hopeful that photographers won’t see what has happened in New York with Richard Liebowitz and conclude that the legal system is stacked against them or that they don’t have a reasonable way to achieve a resolution when they have been wronged.

Importantly, photographers must know that they do have rights in the first place.

“There are many attorneys out there who dedicate their lives to helping copyright owners enforce their rights and pursue infringements. And you don’t have to look far to find some really, really excellent ones. And as I said earlier, many of Mr. Liebowitz’s clients had positive outcomes,” Maddrey says.

“But I think that one of the first things that photographers should do is realize that they have rights in the first place. The minute they take a photograph, they own the copyright in that photograph, and no one else is allowed to reproduce or change it.”

Richard Liebowitz disbarred in New York

Even though one of the most notable — or notorious — copyright lawyers have been disbarred, Liebowitz’s law firm still exists, and many other competent, talented, and committed lawyers can help photographers understand and protect their rights as artists and creators.

Maddrey also says that pro bono help is available. Lawyers in every state work with artists and creatives to help those in need. Photographers can contact the bar association for their city or state, and legal helplines will always be available. There are also many resources available directly from the ASMP.

“Whatever transpired, it’s important to realize that the judicial system is the one that we have, so we have to always hope for the best. And I think here, the state of New York made its findings. That’s entirely separate from the idea that the photographer both has rights and people out there are willing to help,” Maddrey concludes.

Image credits: Unless otherwise noted, photos licensed via Depositphotos.