(CN) – Houghton Mifflin and its printer must face claims that they used stock photos of Alaska’s glaciers, polar bears and sled dogs without permission, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
The stock photography agency Alaska Stock sued Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company and printer R.R. Donnelly & Sons after they allegedly used many more of the agency’s copyrighted photos than had been licensed to them.
U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland in Anchorage tossed the federal lawsuit after finding that the photographs been improperly registered with the Copyright Office. Russell determined that Alaska Stock had listed only three photographers on its application when in fact hundreds of images contained in its database belonged to between 32 and 106 different photographers.
Citing rules used by the Register of Copyrights for some 30 years, a three-judge appeals panel unanimously reversed on Tuesday.
The panel noted a letter that the Copyright Office sent to the a stock-photo trade association in the 1990s, which “says that listing only three individual photographers by name, followed by the phrase ‘and x [number] others,’ and naming the agency as owner of the copyrights was ‘acceptable when the accompanying deposit copies are catalogs consisting of photographs.'”
Indeed, the federal government itself urged reversal in an amicus brief.
“The Copyright Office takes the position that only the author of the collective work, not the individual authors of separate contributions, need be provided in the application,” Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote for the panel. “The names of three authors followed by a statement ‘and [number] others’ suffices, as the letter from the Office to the trade association said. Circulars from the Office say the same thing. Alaska Stock complied with Copyright Office procedures.”
Kleinfeld added that the lower court’s strict adherence to a limited reading of the statute was “unjust.”
“The livelihoods of photographers and stock agencies have long been founded on their compliance with the Register’s reasonable interpretation of the statute,” he wrote. “Their reliance upon a reasonable and longstanding administrative interpretation should be honored. Denying the fruits of reliance by citizens on a longstanding administrative practice reasonably construing a statute is unjust.”
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