A freelance photojournalist has been awarded $1.2 million after a US federal court jury found that two major media companies had infringed his copyrights.

Daniel Morel was in Haiti on January 12, 2010, when an earthquake struck and killed 250,000 people. He took photos of the resulting devastation and distributed them to media outlets all over the world, including via his Twitter feed.

The photos were retweeted and picked up by Agence France-Presse (AFP) and then by Getty Images.

AFP obtained eight of Morel’s photos from the TwitPic account of a person who had posted them on his own Twitter feed without giving Morel credit or noting any restrictions on the use of the photos.

The photos were eventually distributed by media organizations, including ABC, CBS, CNN, and the Washington Post, without Morel’s permission.

Morel settled with the other media outlets but ended up in court with AFP and Getty. AFP sued Morel, claiming that images that appear on Twitter are free for others to use for commercial purposes. In January, a judge disagreed, finding that images on Twitter may only be retweeted but not used on a stand-alone basis without the creator’s permission.

Morel also countersued AFP for copyright infringement. The purpose of the trial was to determine whether the defendants had “willfully” infringed Morel’s copyrights.

AFP’s copyright attorney contended that his client’s infringement was not willful and said that the company had tried to buy the photos from Morel once it learned that he owned them. AFP also sent out a caption correction identifying Morel as the photographer.

When the defendants were advised by the Corbis photo agency that it had the exclusive right to Morel’s photos, they removed the photos from their databases and issued a “mandatory kill” notice telling clients not to use the photos.

Despite these steps, the jury concluded that the defendants’ infringement was in fact willful.

The jury also found that the defendants had violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). For this, they awarded Morel an additional $20,000.

Many individuals and businesses routinely use photos found on the internet without concern for copyright ownership. This is a potentially dangerous practice that can lead to liability for copyright infringement.

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If you have questions about the use of third-party photographs under US copyright law, please contact me for a free 30 minute consultation at nvantreeck@usip.com or call TOLL FREE at 1-855-UR IDEAS (1-855-874-3327) and ask for Norman.

– Ex astris, scientia –

I am and avid amateur astronomer and intellectual property attorney in Pasadena, California and I am a Rising Star as rated by Super Lawyers Magazine.  As a former Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, I am a proud member of the Armed Service Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association working to aid all active duty and veterans in our communities. Connect with me on Google +