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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Harney v. Sony Pictures Television, Inc.

District court rejects photographer’s copyright infringement claim relating to plaintiff’s photograph of a person who was the subject of defendants’ made-for-television movie.

Plaintiff, a photographer, brought a copyright infringement action against Sony Pictures Television and A&E Television Networks, LLC, claiming that an image appearing in defendants’ made-for-television movie infringed his photograph. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which the court granted.

Plaintiff, on assignment for a newspaper, took an un-posed photograph of a father and young daughter exiting a church on Palm Sunday in Beacon Hill, Massachusetts. The girl sat on her father’s shoulders holding a palm leaf; the father held a church service program. Plaintiff placed the pair at the center of his photograph, and made them visible from the middle of the father’s chest upward. In the photo, a tree and church steeple appear above the father and daughter; shadows are also visible. The newspaper published the photograph with an accompanying caption about Palm Sunday, identifying the father as Clark Rockefeller.

Months later, during a bitter divorce battle. the father in the photo fled Massachusetts with his daughter. In the subsequent search for the father, authorities placed plaintiff’s photo on wanted posters. The manhunt was the subject of significant news coverage, partly because authorities discovered that the father, who claimed to belong to the Rockefeller family, was really a German man named Christian Gerhartsreiter.

Sony produced a made-for-TV movie about Gerhartsreiter that aired on A&E. In the movie, the actors portraying the father and daughter are at one point clothed and posed in a manner similar to their appearance in plaintiff’s photograph. However, in the movie, the daughter did not hold a palm leaf; the father did not hold a church program; and the setting and lighting of the movie image differed from that of the photograph.

In assessing plaintiff’s claim that the movie image infringed his photograph, the court found that the movie image did not copy protectable elements of the photograph, such that the image infringed on the photograph.

First, the court held that many elements of the photograph – the father and daughter’s clothing and their poses in the photograph – were not protectable since they were simply facts that plaintiff did not create. Further, many of the arguably protectable elements of the photograph – the church that plaintiff positioned in the background, the lighting, the shadows – were not present in the movie image.

The court found that the works’ only shared element that was arguably protectable was the position of the individuals relative to the boundaries of the photo. However, the court found this similarity to be “an element of minimal originality” that could not give rise to an infringement claim.

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