New York Court Invalidates Copyright Registrations

As previously explained, the first thing that an alleged infringer will do in a copyright infringement case is attempt to invalidate your copyright registration.  That’s just what happened in the case of the Muench Photography, Inc. v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., et al. (a PACER subscription is required).  Unfortunately, the defendant was successful (so far).

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of NY ruled on Tuesday in the Muench case that the copyright registrations that Corbis made for its photographers are invalid.  The Court’s order is available for view on scribd.com.  In sum, the court held that because Corbis’ registrations do not identify the “authors” of the photographs as required by 17 USC 409 (2), “the registrations at issue here cover only the database as a whole (the compilation) but do not cover [Muench Photography’s] individual contributions.”  Order at 22.

According to the Court, Corbis registered the databases of the photographs pursuant to directions given to it by the U.S. Copyright Office and from guidance provided by the Code of Federal Regulations.  While a court will sometimes give deference to the Copyright Office for its interpretations of the Copyright Act, it will not defer to the Office when the interpretation is “contrary to the plain language of the statute.”  Order at 14.  Therefore, the Court ruled that because Corbis included only three photographers’ names (and not all of the photographers) on its copyright registrations, the registrations did not extend to Muench Photography’s photographs.

Victor S. Perlman, General Counsel & Managing Director American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), has announced that “lawyers for PACA and Corbis are working with the Copyright Office on work-arounds to protect the photographers’ copyrights” and that Muench Photography will appeal the ruling.  He also suggested that “if you have photographs that have been registered at the Copyright Office by Corbis, you should contact Corbis to discuss the situation and what actions Corbis might recommend.”

Update:  David Walker over at PDN Pulse does a good job of explaining some additional important details.

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