Ninth Circuit Court Finds Copyright Registrations Valid

Boats and Fireworks

In a nice turn of events for photographers, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that Alaska Stock’s copyright registrations are valid, in stark contrast to what happened in Muench Photography, Inc. v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., et al. There, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of NY ruled that the copyright registrations that Corbis made for its photographers’ images were invalid.  In sum, the court held that because Corbis’ registrations did not identify the “authors” of the photographs as required by 17 USC 409 (2), “the registrations at issue . . . cover only the database as a whole (the compilation) but do not cover [Muench Photography’s] individual contributions.”  Order at 22. But the S.D.N.Y. court’s ruling is not binding on other district court’s rulings.

A different case on the other side of the United States. . .

Alaska Stock, a stock photography agency, registered large numbers of photographs at a time, listing only some of
the authors and not listing titles for each photograph, similar to how Corbis registered its photographs. Alaska Stock then licensed some of the photographs it had registered to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, for fees based on the number of publications. Houghton Mifflin and its printer, R.R. Donnelly & Sons, greatly exceeded the number of publications Houghton Mifflin had paid for, so Alaska Stock sued for injunctive relief, actual and statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.

Alaska Stock owned the copyrights to all the photographs at issue, pursuant to assignment by the individual photographers. It registered the copyrights by registering CD catalogs and databases of the stock photos, entitled “Alaska Stock CD catalog 4” and so forth, which contained images of each of the photographs. For “name of author” on its application, it listed only three of many, in the form “1) Jeff Schultz 2) Chris Arend 3) Johnny Johnson & 103 others.”

This form of registration was prescribed by the Register of Copyrights and was consistent with Copyright Office
procedure for thirty years. The District Court  for the District of Alaska nevertheless dismissed Alaska Stock’s infringement claims on the ground that the registrations were defective, because Alaska Stock had not provided the names of each of the photographers and the titles of each of the photographs in its registrations. The theory of the dismissal was that the registrations succeeded only in registering the catalogs themselves, not the individual photographs within them, because Alaska Stock failed to list authors and titles. The district court held that the statute unambiguously required titles and authors, so the administrative practice to the contrary and a statutory savings clause for immaterially inaccurate information could not save the claims.

But then came the Ninth Circuit . . .

So Alaska Stock appealed the Alaska District Court’s Order to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  You can listen to the recording of the argument before the Ninth Circuit. And, today, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and found that Alaska Stock’s registrations are valid! In sum, the court stated:

Thus, we conclude that Alaska Stock successfully registered the copyright both to its collections and to the individual images contained therein.

Of note, the Fourth Circuit recently confronted the same issue in Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Inc. v. American Home Realty Network, Inc., and ruled as the Ninth Circuit did here.

And the final words of the Ninth Circuit are especially comforting for photographers:

We are affecting the fortunes of people, many of whose fortunes are small. The stock agencies through their trade association worked out what they should do to register images with the Register of Copyrights, the Copyright Office established a clear procedure and the stock agencies followed it. The Copyright Office has maintained its procedure for three decades, spanning multiple
administrations. The livelihoods of photographers and stock agencies have long been founded on their compliance with the Register’s reasonable interpretation of the statute. Their reliance upon a reasonable and longstanding administrative interpretation should be honored. Denying the fruits of
reliance by citizens on a longstanding administrative practice reasonably construing a statute is unjust. 

It’s wonderful for photographers to get this justice!

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