AFP fined 1.2 million US-Dollars for using photos from Twitter

Copyright is for Losers. Photo: Sam Teigen

Some people at AFP/Getty seemed to follow this slogan – at least where other people’s rights are concerned. Photo: Sam Teigen on Flickr

AFP and Getty Images have to pay a photographer 1.2 million dollars for using, distributing and selling photos that he had uploaded to Twitter after the Haiti earthquake. That is the verdict of a jury after a three-year legal battle.

In short, here is what happened: Photographer Daniel Morel was in Haiti when the 2010 earthquake happened and immediately uploaded photos to his Twitter account. AFP/Getty took these photos from Twitter without his permission and sold them to their clients. When Morel found out and wanted to be paid, the agencies were audacious enough to claim that it was ok for them to take the photos, because they had been on Twitter! Obviously, this is a ridiculous defense, because AFP and Getty would never accept that excuse from you.

275,000 USD per photo

Nevertheless it took a three-year legal battle to settle this issue. In the beginning Morel’s lawyers wanted to have 120,000 million USD (sic), which was as unrealistic, as the 275 USD per photo that AFP/Getty was offering was insulting. In the end, the jury decided to award Morel 275,000 USD per photo or 1.2 million USD in total. (Tip of the hat to the British Journal of Photography for following this case closely.)

Lessons for NGOs

In my mind, there is no doubt that the reason that AFP/Getty had to pay so much for their copyright violations was that they of all people should have known better. After all, their whole business model depends on managing (digital) rights. However, I think this also serves as a warning to non-profit organizations whose staff sometimes takes a careless approach to copyright.

I’m pretty sure that if we went through non-profit websites today, we would find images from Typhoon Haiyan that come from social media sources and that are being used without permission. Of course, this almost never has consequences, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong. Secondly, if you are using it on a webpage or in a brochure which you use for fundraising purposes, I think you are exposing yourself and your organization to substantial risk, because a photographer could argue that you were using his photos for financial gain – similarly if not as blatantly as AFP/Getty did.

So the lesson is: ask before you use a photo!

In my experience, you will almost always get permission to use a photo for free, particularly if you are representing a non-profit organization. Of course, in a rapid onset emergency, it can be difficult to get permission as quickly as you want it, but there are other ways to illustrate an emergency:

  • You can always fall back on using a map with a big red dot for where the emergency is.
  • I continue to find that Flickr is the best source for high quality photos that are released under creative commons license (to be found via “advanced search“).
  • If it’s a big emergency, Wikipedia might already have a page and photo – and all photos on Wikipedia are creative commons licensed.
  • Last but not least, if you really need a high quality photo, you can’t find what you are looking for on Flickr or Wikipedia and you don’t want to employ a workaround, then you might simply have to accept the fact that you might have to pay for it. After all, you like to be paid for your work too!

 What do you think of this court case? Do you have other tips for getting photos? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.