US court rules that using online photos can be considered 'fair use'

Groups are concerned the case sets a dangerous precedent.

In the real world, copyright legislation seems simple enough -- don't steal something and claim it as your own work. Online, however, things are murkier. The EU Parliament recently passed a law that would stop users from uploading copyrighted content -- but in the digital age, what does 'copyright' actually cover? An Insta picture of your morning coffee? A meme? What about a cropped photograph of a D.C neighborhood? It's the last of these options that resulted in a legal tussle, and ended with a federal court ruling 'fair use'.

When Russell Brammer, an Oregon-based photographer, discovered his long-exposure shot of Adams Morgan had been featured on the Northern Virginia Film Festival's website without permission, he contacted the company responsible and requested it discontinue using the photograph -- which it did. Brammer then took the matter to court, claiming Violent Hues Productions' actions constituted copyright infringement and that Violent Hues had deliberately removed the original copyright information and affixed its own. However, presiding judge Claude M. Hilton deemed that because Violent Hues utilized the photograph "purely for its factual content", it satisfied the criteria for 'fair use' under the Copyright Law of the United States.

According to title 17, section 108 of the United States Code (USC), something can be considered fair use if it's for nonprofit or educational purposes, doesn't adversely impact the potential market for the copyrighted work, and the portion used doesn't exceed a substantial amount of the original work. Judge Hilton argued that Violent Hues' usage met these conditions, adding that Brammer had previously published the same photograph online without indicating it was copyright material -- another factor which worked in the company's favor.

That a court in Virginia ruled fair use doesn't preclude other states from coming to a different conclusion. In Florida, Nova Southeastern University's copyright officer Stephen Carlisle labeled the ruling a "head scratching decision" and said the USC does not compel an author to place copyright on their work. Carlisle explained further: "Under 17 USC 102, every work of artistic expression is protected by copyright the moment it is placed in a tangible media."

While the court mentions Brammer dropped his claims of Violent Hues erasing his copyright, there is still a chance Brammer may appeal against the ruling.