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Controversy over Prince photos hits federal appeals court

The late musician's personal photographer claims photos he planned to use in a book about the artist were illegally used for other purposes and never returned by his collaborators.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A yearslong dispute over the custody and use of photographs of the late recording artist Prince made it to a federal appeals court on Thursday, spurred by Prince’s personal photographer’s claims that his photos were converted by collaborators on a scrapped book project.

Allen Beaulieu was Prince’s personal photographer for several years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, taking thousands of unique photographs of the Minneapolis native in that time. After Prince’s sudden death in April of 2016, Beaulieu planned to publish a book with collaborators, some of whom he had known since high school, featuring more than 100 of his photographs.

The book project was abandoned in May of 2016 after tensions arose between the collaborators, and shortly thereafter all involved began disputing over the use of the photographs for ventures outside the planned book and the return of the photographs to Beaulieu, who says he alone holds all rights to them.

In October 2016, Beaulieu sued Clint Stockwell, a chief image artist involved with the book; Thomas Crouse, a copyrighter; Charles Sanvik, an investor for the project; and Stockwell’s company Studio 1124, based in Minneapolis.

Beaulieu’s claims of conversion, copyright infringement and tortious interference stem from his assertion that the defendants delayed for months in returning his photos and still have some of them, tried to use the photos for a slideshow gallery and other purposes outside the book without license, and scuttled Beaulieu’s dealings with a European publisher by illegally hanging onto the photos, among other claims.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in Minnesota granted summary judgment to both Sanvik and Stockwell in a pair of December 2018 orders, dispensing with all of Beaulieu’s claims. The judge felt the claims were speculative, partially because Beaulieu could not provide an accurate inventory of how many photos were given to the defendants but not returned, it seems Stockwell no longer has any of the photos, any use of the photos outside the failed book was something Beaulieu was aware of and implicitly licensed, and he cannot prove harm in any case.

Michael Puklich, an attorney with Minneapolis-based firm Neaton & Puklich representing Stockwell, echoed these matters in his appellate brief to the Eighth Circuit, saying “the story Beaulieu weaves in this case is difficult to follow and riddled with inconsistencies,” and that the district court correctly concluded “Beaulieu’s argument was speculative and lacked evidentiary support” for an ever-changing argument over photos Beaulieu took more than 30 years ago.

On Thursday before an Eighth Circuit panel, Beaulieu’s attorney Gabriel Gillett from the Chicago office of international corporate law firm Jenner & Block reiterated that, from the beginning, Beaulieu only wanted to create a book and never authorized any other use of his photographs despite his collaborators’ secretive plans to the contrary.

It took months of Beaulieu demanding the return of his photos before Stockwell returned any of them, much less all of them, Gillett said in support of Beaulieu’s conversion theory. Nothing in the record, he continued, supports the idea that the defendants had implied license to use his client’s photos for anything other than the book per the terms of their contract, including the slideshow gallery.

“That’s not a book project, that’s an entirely separate project,” Gillett said, which Beaulieu never consented to.

U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton, an appointee of George W. Bush, recalled the district court’s question of harm.

“Your opponents have a theme: no damages, no damages, no damages,” Benton said, asserting that Beaulieu still has to prove that end of his claims.

Puklich refuted Beaulieu’s argument that he never gave consent, implicitly or otherwise, for projects outside the book, saying that “not only was there express knowledge of what was going on…but also a request by Mr. Beaulieu to do so” with regard to outside sharing of his photos with third-parties.

Nobody stole any photos, Puklich said, asserting that “this was a voluntary joint venture they entered into…and it expanded beyond the original agreement,” which came to include promotional materials for the book that all parties needed to approve of, which Beaulieu did, at least in part, through silence by not responding to emails sent to him by Stockwell and the others.

Neither the judges on the appeals panel nor the attorneys on Thursday could truly nail down how many emails were in dispute. Gillett said there were only two, but Edward Fox, an attorney appearing for Sanvik from Minneapolis firm Bassford Remele, said it was more like six or eight emails that could have given Beaulieu notice of projects outside the book.

During his portion of arguments, Fox again pointed out that Beaulieu still cannot provide a definite inventory of his photos, and said there is “not a whiff of any inappropriate activity to exploit Mr. Beaulieu’s photographs” in the massive amount of discovery that has already taken place.

U.S. Circuit Judges Raymond Gruendner, another George W. Bush appointee, and L. Steven Grasz, a Donald Trump appointee, rounded out the appeals court panel on Thursday. The panel indicated at the close of arguments it would issue a decision in due course.

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