by Nancy Wolff, DMLA Counsel
Fair use is often described as one of the most difficult to understand doctrines of copyright law by the courts. This could not be more obvious than in a recent Northern District of Virginia decision, which found in favor of fair use where an image was used to illustrate a website. Many in the industry thought the use at issue in the case was an obvious infringement as it was one that is typically licensed. In Brammer v. Violent Hues Productions, LLC, the photographer Russell Brammer sued Violent Hues for infringing his copyright of a time-lapse depiction of the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., at night. Violent Hues used a cropped version of Brammer’s photograph on its website, which was intended to be used as a reference guide providing about an annual film festival in Northern Virginia. The court granted Violent Hues’ motion for summary judgment on its defense of fair use, finding all four of the statutory factors favored a finding of fair use.
As to the first factor – the purpose and character of the use – the court looked to “whether the new work is transformative” and “the extent to which the use serves a commercial purpose.” The court found that Violent Hues’ use of the photograph was transformative in function and purpose. While Brammer’s purpose in capturing and publishing the photograph was promotional and expressive, the court noted that Violent Hues’ purpose in using it was informational because it used the photograph to provide information regarding the local area. Its use was also found to be non-commercial as the photo was not used to advertise a product or to generate revenue. Additionally, the court found that Violent Hues’ use was in good faith because Violent Hues’ owner attested that he believed the photo was publicly available because he found the photo online and saw no indication that it was copyrighted. In further support of good faith was the fact that Violent Hues removed the photo as soon as it learned the photo might be copyrighted.
The second factor – the nature of the copyrighted work – was also held to favor fair use. While the court noted that the photograph contained creative elements, it was a factual depiction of a real-world location and Violent Hues used the photograph purely for its factual content: to depict the neighborhood. The photograph had also previously been published on several websites and “at least one of these publications did not include any indication that it was copyrighted.”
On the third factor – the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted whole – the court noted that Violent Hues cropped half of the original photo. The court found this to be no more than necessary to convey the photo’s factual content. Thus, the third factor weighed in favor of fair use as well.
Finally, regarding the fourth factor – the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work – the court found no evidence that Violent Hues’ use had any effect on the potential market for Brammer’s photo. The court noted that Brammer still made sales of the photograph (at least two) after Violent Hues’ alleged infringement began, and Brammer testified that he made no effort to market the photo. Additionally, the court found the cropping of the photo and its non-commercial use to undercut a finding of adverse effect on the photo’s market.
In all, the court found that each of the four factors favored Violent Hues and thus held that Violent Hues’ use was a fair use and that there was no copyright infringement.
This decision has been roundly criticized by the industry and it has been noted that it is not often that a court gets every fair use factor wrong. The plaintiff is appealing the decision and many associations in the visual arts industry, including DMLA, are planning to file either separate or joint amicus briefs. Specifically of concern is the distinction between using an image for informational purpose and using and image for aesthetic purpose. By its nature, every image conveys some information, and to be successful, should be aesthetically appealing. Further, one of the touchstones of stock imagery licensing is that one image or clip can be reproduced for many different purposes. In addition, the fact that an image is displayed without a copyright notice should not mean that the work is free to use without consent, absent a legitimate exception, as copyright notice has not been a requirement under US copyright law since 1989. Lastly, when looking at harm to the market the court should look at the potential harm to the market if the type of unauthorized use is widespread. As the licensing of images to websites to enhance the look of the site or to provide visual information regarding a geographic area is common, widespread unauthorized use of this nature could have a significant impact on the licensing of visual content.