Tag Archives: Brammer v. Violent Hues Productions

Fourth Circuit Rules in Favor of Stock Photographer, Overturning Questionable Fair Use Decision (Brammer v. Violent Hues Productions, LLC(4th Cir. 2019))

By Sara Gates and Nancy Wolff CDAS

The rights of a stock photographer were recently vindicated when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a questionable Virginia district court decision, which held that a production company’s use of a stock photo of a Washington, D.C. neighborhood on a website promoting a film festival was fair use.  In the decision released on April 26, 2019, the Fourth Circuit determined that Violent Hues Productions, LLC’s use of a cropped version of photographer Russell Brammer’s photo of Adams Morgan in a list of tourist attractions on a website promoting the Northern Virginia International Film and Music Festival did not qualify as a fair use.

The case focuses on the photograph “Adams Morgan at Night,” which Brammer shot from the rooftop of a building in the Washington D.C. neighborhood in 2011.  Experimenting with various shutter speeds and aperture combinations, Brammer photographed a busy street full of passing cars that appear as trails of red and white lights.  He published a digital copy of the photo on his website and on Flickr with a “© All rights reserved” notice, and later licensed the photo for online use.

Years later, in 2016, Violent Hues downloaded the photo—presumably from Flickr, while overlooking the rights notice—and proceeded to crop out the negative space before posting it on http://novafilmfest.com, necessitating the litigation.  After the district court absolved Violent Hues of liability under the fair use doctrine, Brammer appealed the decision, asking the Fourth Circuit to set the record straight.

The Fourth Circuit did just that when it engaged in a thoughtful analysis of the fair use factors and considered the arguments raised by each side.  Its decision is instructive as it adds to the wealth of case law on how to interpret the complex and nuanced doctrine of fair use.

Purpose and Character of the Use

For the first factor, the Court considered whether Violent Hues did anything to transform the work.  The Court rejected Violent Hues’ suggestion that the analysis should focus on the subjective intent of the parties and instead compared Brammer’s photo and Violent Hues’ use, as it appeared on the website, side-by-side.  The only obvious change, the Court noted, was the cropping, which generally is non-transformative.

The Court also rejected Violent Hues’ contextual argument, in which they claimed that they transformed the photo by putting it on a list of tourist attractions.  While courts have found minor contextual changes to be sufficient in two specific instances—raw material for technological functions and documentary uses—the Court found that Violent Hues’ copying did not fall within either category.

As Violent Hues’ use of the photo was also for a for-profit film festival, and Violent Hues’ did not have to pay the customary fee for its use of stock image, the Court found this factor ultimately weighed against fair use.

Nature of the Copyrighted Work

The Court’s consideration of the second factor focused on the thickness versus the thinness of the author’s rights, noting that some works are closer to the core of intended copyright protection that others, which should be entitled to only thin copyright protection.  Here, the Court found the photo was entitled to “thick” protection, considering Brammer’s many creative choices, such as the location, shutter speed and aperture combinations, uses of vivid colors, and birds-eye-view angle.  The Court noted that photos are generally viewed as creative, even if they capture images of reality, and have long received thick protection.

Additionally, the Court noted that publication status of the photo was not relevant fair use analysis.  Unlike in the case of literary works, where the right of first publication is paramount, photos are often intended for repetitive viewing, so the publication consideration is different in the area of photography. The Court summed it its point as follows: context matters.  Accordingly, the Court found that this factor also weighed against fair use.

Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used

The Court’s analysis of this factor was straightforward, as it was clear that Violent Hues used roughly half the photo by cropping out the negative space, but kept the most expressive features, i.e., the heart of the work.  While a substantial taking can still constitute fair use, if it is justified (requiring the Court to look back to the first factor), here, the taking was not justified.  This factor also weighed against fair use.

Effect on the Market

For the fourth factor, the Court consider both the extent of the market harm and whether Violent Hues’ conduct, if widespread, would result in a substantially adverse impact to the photos’ potential market.  Here, the Court found a presumption of market harm, which exists when commercial use is not transformative, but amounts to a mere duplication.  Though Brammer was not required to present any evidence to show the negative effect on the licensing market for the photo, given that the Court found the presumption applies, he did so, showing that he received a $1,250 fee in one instance.  The Court noted that Brammer would have missed out on this fee if the company that decided to license his photo had instead opted to act like Violent Hues. Thus, this factor weighed against fair use as well.

As all four factors weighed against fair use, the Court’s balancing test was fairly easy: no fair use.  The Court signed off with this reminder the there is no difference between copying photos for print use versus online use: “What Violent Hues did was publish a tourism guide for a commercial event and include the Photo to make the end product more visually interesting. Such a use would not constitute fair use when done in print, and it does not constitute fair use on the Internet.”

DMLA’s Interest

DMLA filed an amicus brief in favor of the photographer, specifically addressing the fourth factor – extent of the market harm -and the impact the lower court’s decision would have on the licensing industry if this type of fair use of an image became widespread. Other visual artists associations as well as the Copyright Alliance, submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the photographer addressing other factors. This is great example of the industry coming together to correct a decision that if left to stand, could adversely affect the rights of content owners and members of DMLA if other courts followed the lower courts fair use analysis.

 

FAIR USE OR INFRINGEMENT?

Industry experts have been scratching their heads after a U.S. judge ruled an image, taken from the website of a professional photographer and used by a film festival online, was fair use. The case, is Brammer v. Violent Hues Productions LLC, and it began when Russell Brammer found one of his pictures, a long exposure shot of Adams Morgan, Washington D.C., had been used on a website promoting the Northern Virginia Film Festival.

Read a complete analysis of the case here

Fair Use or Infringement?-Court finds use of image to illustrate a geographic area on website fair use.

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.