In a bizarre ruling, an English court has ruled that in favor of a commercial poster company that argued that a photo that showed a similar (but different) scene taken by a different person in a different place nevertheless infringed the copyright of a poster. What the judge ruled was that photographing a scene that is "substantially similar" to a scene someone else has already photographed infringes the first shooter's copyright.
It's impossible to understand how this will play out in real life. If a Reuters and an AP photographer are standing next to each other shooting the Prime Minister as he walks out of a summit with the US President, their photos will be nearly identical. Will the slightly faster shutter on the AP shooter's camera give him the exclusive right to publish a photo of the scene from the press-scrum?
The judge here ruled that the idea of the image was the copyright, not the image itself. Ideas have always been exempt from copyright, because courts and lawmakers have recognized the danger of awarding ownership over ideas. Indeed, the "idea/expression split" is pretty much the first thing you learn in any copyright class.
Amateur Photographer quotes "photographic copyright expert Charles Swan" who warns, "The Temple Island case is likely to herald more claims of this kind."
Yeah, no shit. This creates a situation where anyone who owns a large library of photos — a stock photography outfit — can go through its catalog and start suing anyone with deep pockets: "We own the copyright to 'two guys drinking beer with the bottoms of the mugs aimed skyward!'" It's an apocalyptically bad ruling, and an utter disaster in the making.
Swan warned: 'The Temple Island case is likely to herald more claims of this kind. The judgement should be studied by anyone imitating an existing photograph or commissioning a photograph based on a similar photograph.
'"Inspiration' and "reference" are fine in themselves, but there is a line between copying ideas and copying the original expression of ideas which is often a difficult one to draw.'
Though, in the past, the cost of such court actions has made them 'uneconomic to pursue' this is all about to change, added Swan. 'The UK government has accepted a recommendation in the Hargreaves Report that the Patents County Court… should operate a small claims procedure for intellectual property claims under £5,000.'
Photographers face copyright threat after shock ruling (update3)
(Images: Left, "Red Bus Image," Temple Island; Right, packaging label, New English Teas. Taken from this PDF)