Federal Court Explains the Bounds of Fair Use by a News Organization, Ruling That Esquire’s Use of Photo of Trump at Private Wedding Is Not Fair

by Nancy Wolff, DMLA Counsel

The decision in Otto v. Hearst Communications, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-04712 (S.D.N.Y. 2018) provides a helpful guide to what is does not qualify as fair use in the context of a news story. Fair use is a limitation on a copyright owners exclusive rights and permits the use of a work without consent. It is codified in the current Copyright Act, and the statute provides examples of what can be considered fair use. Because “news reporting” is an example, it is all too common that popular news websites rely on fair use rather than licensing a photo, asserting that the use is news reporting. But is it?

Most likely not. In Otto v. Hearst Communications, Inc., Judge Gregory H. Woods dealt with this issue directly and found that Esquire.com’s use of a photo of Donald Trump at a private wedding in an article about him crashing the wedding was not fair use. The instructive decision, which analyzed the copyright infringement claim and individual components of the fair use defense, provides a clear example of what is not considered fair use in the context of a news story.

In June 2017, Jonathan Otto, a weddinggoer, snapped a photo of Trump, who happened to appear at a wedding held at his golf club in New Jersey. The amateur photographer texted the photo to a friend, only to discover the next morning that his photo had unexpectedly gone viral—first on Instagram, and then splashed across the pages of several online media outlets.

Seeking to protect his rights, Otto, retained counsel and filed for copyright registration. He then enforced his copyright by suing several of the media outlets, including Hearst Communications, Inc., the parent company of Esquire, who had copied and published Otto’s photo, for copyright infringement. In response, Esquire did not dispute that it had copied the photo but asserted a fair use defense arguing that it had used the photo of Trump for news purposes. However, the Court did not buy this argument.

The Court analyzed each of the four fair use factors in detail and explained why, taken together, the factors did not weigh in favor of a finding of fair use. Specifically, he wrote: “Stealing a copyrighted photograph to illustrate a news article, without adding new understanding or meaning to the work, does not transform its purpose—regardless of whether that photograph was created for commercial or personal use.”

While Esquire’s status as a news publication may be important for the fair use inquiry, that fact alone does not make Esquire, or any other media organization, immune from liability under intellectual property laws. Below is an overview of Judge Woods’ analysis and findings on each of the elements of fair use:

Purpose and Character of the Work. First, the Court discussed the purpose and character of Otto’s photo—arguably the most important fair use factor. The judge noted that Hearst’s argument that the use is fair because the photo was created for personal use, and Esquire used it for news, was unpersuasive. While “news reporting” is specifically identified as a potential method of fair use in the statute, courts analyzing this factor still look to the transformativeness of the use of the copyrighted work. For example, did Esquire’s use of the photo in a post describing Trump crashing the wedding add a new meaning or message? Esquire argued that its use did because the article “added commentary regarding the President’s availability for photos at the wedding and broader trend in the President’s behavior.” However, the Court disagreed, concluding that Esquire used the image solely for illustrative purposes—to depict the President’s presence at a private wedding—and did not add anything new to the image.

Nature of the Copyrighted Work. Second, the Court examined the nature of the copyrighted work, such as whether it is expressive or creative versus factual or informational, and whether the work is published or not. While photographs can vary widely on this spectrum, the Court agreed with Esquire’s argument that the image is more factual, because the photo was taken spontaneously to document an event, and Otto did not direct or pose the subjects. As for the publication status of the photo, the parties did not dispute that the image had already been published and disseminated widely before Esquire’s use. Although a copyright owner’s right of first publication is important, the Court found that Esquire’s article did not threaten this right. Consequently, this factor—while far from the most important in the fair use analysis—weighed in favor of fair use.

Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used. Next, the Court evaluated just how much of Otto’s photograph Esquire used. For its article, Esquire used a slightly cropped version of Otto’s photo, but otherwise did not edit it. As one would assume, the more of a copyrighted work that is taken, the less likely the use is to be fair; however, courts also take the purpose of the use into account, looking back at the first fair use factor. Because it was clear that Esquire used the entirety of the photo and did so without adding new meaning or otherwise transforming the work, the Court found that this factor weighed against fair use.

Effect of the Use on the Potential Market. Finally, the Court considered the effect of Esquire’s use of the photo upon the potential market for or value of the photo. Where the copyright holder has no intention of entering the market, or the inability to do so, courts often find this factor weighs in favor of fair use. However, that is not the case here. Because Otto had acted quickly to protect his rights and was seeking to license the photo, such as to publications like TMZ, the Court found that it was clear that Otto was attempting to enter the market. Esquire’s unauthorized publishing of the same photo destroys the potential market and harm’s Otto’s ability to license the work. As such, the fourth factor also weighed against fair use.

Weighing the four factors together, the Court found that it was evident that Hearst’s use of the image was not fair. “The fact that Hearst’s commercial use did not transform the Photograph’s purpose or add new meaning to the image; the fact that Hearst used the work in its entirety; and the potential harm to any financial opportunities Otto might reasonably pursue for use of the photo, outweigh the fact that the image is factual and published,” Judge Woods concluded.

While any fair use analysis is an inherently fact-driven inquiry, this case is helpful to explain the point that a photo that merely illustrates a newsworthy article, without adding more, is not fair use. If the photo was the news story itself, the result might have been different. This case confirms that images to illustrate articles should be licensed and not just taken

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