(CN) – A federal judge ruled Esquire’s parent company is liable for copyright infringement for publishing a photo snapped by a guest showing President Donald Trump crashing a wedding at Trump National Golf Club.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods in New York found that Hearst Communications Inc. violated wedding guest Jonathan Otto’s copyright when it used a photo he took, without his permission, of President Trump and the bride in an article on its Esquire website titled, “President Trump is the Ultimate Wedding Crasher.”
“Stealing a copyrighted photograph to illustrate a news article, without adding new understanding or meaning to the work, does not transform its purpose—regardless of whether that photograph was created for commercial or personal use,” Judge Woods wrote in a 31-page opinion.
It all began June 10, 2017, when President Trump unexpectedly showed up at a private wedding that Otto was attending at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey, and posed for photos and signed autographs.
Of the several photos Otto took with his iPhone, one of the president and the bride went viral after Otto sent it to a fellow wedding attendee named Sean Burke.
According to court records, Otto texted Burke the day after the wedding and said, “Hey, TMZ & others using my photo above without credit/compensation. You send to anyone? I want my cut.”
Burke said he wasn’t contacted by anyone but that a woman named Kat was, and Otto says a relative of the bride also posted the picture on Instagram.
It was published by TMZ, CNN, the Washington Post, Daily Mail and Esquire.
After realizing a “lucrative business opportunity,” court records show, Otto immediately retained counsel with Liebowitz Law Firm PLLC, filed for a copyright of the image and then brought five different lawsuits against the media outlets who he says published the photo without his permission.
In Monday’s opinion, Judge Woods discussed the importance of copyright law and why it exists.
“It would be antithetical to the purposes of copyright protection to allow media companies to steal personal images and benefit from the fair use defense by simply inserting the photo in an article which only recites factual information—much of which can be gleaned from the photograph itself,” the judge wrote.
He continued, “If so, amateur photographers would be discouraged from creating works and there would be no incentive for publishers to create their own content to illustrate articles: why pay to create or license photographs if all personal images posted on social media are free grist for use by media companies, as Hearst argues here?”
Woods granted Otto’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of Hearst’s liability for copyright infringement.
Otto has already settled with the other four publications, with one agreement resulting in a retroactive licensing agreement.
A trial will determine if he can seek damages of up to$150,000 in his case against Hearst depending on whether the publisher acted willfully.
Otto’s lawyer James Freeman said in an email he was happy with the ruling.
“The case is a substantial development in U.S. copyright law because it establishes that media companies and news organizations cannot just expropriate photographs from social media accounts, even though such images were initially created for personal use,” he said. “The newsworthy photographs of amateur photographers, who happen to be at the right place at the right time, are accorded just as much copyright protection as professional works.”
In-house counsel for Hearst did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email request for comment.