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Bean v. McDougal Littell, et al.

Plaintiff, a photographer, sued defendant text book publishers for copyright infringement, alleging that they exceeded their licenses to use his photograph and used the photograph in a new textbook edition without his permission.

The defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s copyright claims because the copyright in the photograph was improperly registered. The plaintiff is not the named claimant on the copyright registration; instead, the registration is for a collection of photographs, and a third-party corporation (Corbis) is listed as the claimant.

The defendants argued that Corbis was an improper claimant because it did not have “all the rights under the copyright” at the time it registered the copyright. The agreement between plaintiff and Corbis assigned legal title “solely for the purposes of copyright registration.” Upon registration, Corbis was required to immediately reassign legal title to the plaintiff. Corbis did not have the right to sell its title, nor did it have the right to make derivative works or to grant exclusive rights. The court explained, however, that the question is whether the language of the contract transferring “legal title in the undersigned's images ... solely for the purpose of copyright registration” is adequate to transfer “all rights under the copyright” to the corporation. The court held that it was because 37 C.F.R. § 202.3(a)(3)(ii) explicitly states that the class of owners possessing “all rights under the copyright” includes entities with the “contractual right to claim legal title to the copyright.” Thus, Corbis’s registration of the collection of photographs containing the plaintiff's photograph registered the plaintiff's photograph individually. When Corbis transferred legal title in the photograph back to the plaintiff, it transferred title in a fully registered copyright.

The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that only legal title to the image was transferred and not to the copyright, finding that it was clearly the intent of the parties to transfer title to the copyright along with the images. Finally, the court rejected the defendants’ argument that the collection could not have been registered as a single work because it was never published as a single publication and the photographs weren’t similar in their general content. The court held that the defendants cited to no evidence to support these accusations and mere “accusations are not evidence,” so the defendants had not cited to any evidence to overcome the presumption of a valid copyright established by the registration certificate and the court presumed for the time being that the collection was copyrightable at the time of registration. The court therefore found that the plaintiff had met his burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction in fact.