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Photographers are the sole authors of their photos

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    NMU         ILLINOIS         Copyrights & Trademarks         Aug 3, 2000    

Photographers are the sole authors of their photos

  • A federal judge ruled that photographs of The Oprah Winfrey Show were authored and copyrighted by the photographers who took them, not Winfrey or her company.

Two photographers who took more than 60,000 photographs of The Oprah Winfrey show are the sole authors and copyright holders of their photographs, U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo ruled in late July.

The case involves two photographers, Paul Natkin and Stephen Green, who had taken thousands of pictures of Winfrey’s show between 1988 and 1995. The photographers acted as independent contractors, billing Winfrey’s company Harpo Productions for their work and expenses, according to the judge.

When Winfrey published 11 of their photographs in her weight-loss book, Make the Connection, Natkin and Green sued Winfrey and Harpo Productions for use of their photos without their permission.

In their suit, filed in federal court in Chicago, Natkin and Green claimed that they were the sole authors and copyright holders of the published photographs and that publishing the photographs was an infringement of their copyrights. Winfrey argued that Natkin and Green were acting within the scope of their employment as Harpo employees, giving Winfrey and Harpo authorship of and copyright to the photographs. Winfrey argued that alternatively, the court should at least find joint authorship of the photos since the majority of the elements in the photos, such as Winfrey, her guests, and the set of her show, were under Winfrey’s control.

The court ruled that because neither of the photographers received employment benefits or a regular paycheck from Harpo, but instead billed Harpo for their work and expenses, they were independent contractors and not Harpo employees. Because Natkin and Green were not employees, Harpo could not claim ownership or copyright to the photographs they took.

Castillo’s ruling did leave open the possibility that Harpo may have had a right to use the photographs in Winfrey’s book. Castillo found that there was “an implied nonexclusive license to use the photographs,” meaning that Winfrey was granted rights to use Natkin and Green’s work. The exact scope of the rights will be determined at trial scheduled to begin August 14.

(Natkin and Green v. Winfrey; Photographer’s Counsel: Elliot Zinger, Illinois; Winfrey’s Counsel: Charles Babcock, Texas) JM


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