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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Alaska Stock, LLC v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.

Ninth Circuit holds that copyright registration of database of stock photography successfully registered component works, even where application listed only some authors and gave no title for any works, in accordance with established Copyright Office procedure.

Plaintiff Alaska Stock, LLC, a stock photography agency, registers the copyrights in its collections of photographs in large catalogs. Photographers give limited assignments to Alaska Stock for the purpose of both registering their individual photos in the catalog and the catalog itself. Alaska Stock then registers its CD catalogs and databases, which contain images of the photographers’ stock photos. For “name of author” on Alaska Stock’s copyright application, it lists three authors by name, and “& [x number] others,” and does not list titles for each photograph. Alaska Stock then licenses defendants to use pictures it has registered, for fees based on the number of publications. Defendants greatly exceeded the number of publications allowed under the license, and Alaska Stock sued for injunctive relief and damages. The district court dismissed Alaska Stock’s copyright claims, finding that the registrations were defective because Alaska Stock failed to provide the names of each of the photographers and the titles of each of the photographs in its registrations. The court concluded that the registrations registered only the catalogs and not the individual photographs within them. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that Alaska Stock’s form of registration was prescribed by the Register of Copyrights and was consistent with Copyright Office procedure.

In 1995, the Copyright Office met with a trade association of stock agencies and agreed that a stock agency could register both a catalog of images and the individual photographs in the catalog in one application if photographers temporarily transferred their copyrights to the stock agency for the purposes of registration. The Copyright Office also provided a letter to the trade association prescribing how stock photo catalogs should be registered – by listing only three individual photographers by name, followed by the phrase “& x [number] others,” and naming the agency as the owner of the copyrights. The letter stated that a copyright examiner would interpret these filings to mean that the copyright being registered would include the catalog and extend also to the photographs themselves. Based on this established practice, the United States submitted an amicus brief in support of Alaska Stock, taking the position that the Copyright Office has long permitted an application to cover registration of a collective work and the component works that the claimant owns, even if the application does not specify authors and titles of the component works.

The Ninth Circuit found this approach persuasive and deferred to the Copyright Office, finding that the Register’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable, that the procedure has been maintained for three decades, and that the livelihoods of photographers and stock agencies have long relied upon this administrative interpretation. Moreover, the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Circuits have all held similarly. Accordingly, after finding that Alaska Stock’s registration comported with the Copyright Office’s approach exactly, the panel reversed, and held that so long as the registrant of the collective work had been assigned the individual copyrights for the purpose of registration, the copyright in a collection extends to each individual work in the collection even though the names of each work and the authors of the works are not expressly listed in the copyright registration.

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