MANHATTAN (CN) - In a federal lawsuit, seven professional photographers accuse the NFL of "rampant, willful and continued" copyright violations, and accuse Getty Images and The Associated Press of "illegal and unethical misconduct which permitted, encouraged and contributed to" it.
Lead plaintiff Paul Spinelli sued the NFL and its affiliates, Replay Photos, Getty Images and The Associated Press, in Federal Court. Spinelli does business as Spin Photos, of Long Beach, Calif., and was a director of the NFL's dissolved Photographic Services division.
The other six plaintiffs are from six other states.
The lawsuit involves only photos that the photographers shot "on spec" - meaning on speculation: to be paid per photo, not by the day or hour - and the library of "literally hundred of thousands" of such NFL-related photos.
The photographers claim they retained copyright in the photos they shot on spec, but the licensing defendants and the NFL ignored that, to reuse their work for ads, news, promotions, products, and to boost the NFL's image and profits.
"Although plaintiffs license the photos that they shot 'on spec' through third-party licensing agents (formerly NFL Photos and then Getty Images and currently AP), they never transferred their copyrights in these photos to their agents," the lawsuit states. "Rather, as plaintiffs' contributor agreements expressly provided, they retained sole and exclusive ownership of all copyrights in these photos.
"This action concerns the NFL defendants' rampant, willful, and continued misuse of photographs to which plaintiffs own copyrights. This action also involves Getty Images' and AP's illegal and unethical misconduct which permitted, encouraged, and contributed to the NFL defendants' infringements."
The NFL formed its Photographic Services division, or NFL Photos, in 1965.
"Through NFL Photos, the NFL actively solicited photography from and hired freelance photographers in order to expand the NFL's brand," the photographers say in the complaint.
The better-known NFL Films division generally owns the copyrights to video footage. (Hence the statement made at the end of every televised NFL game, that rebroadcast is prohibited without the express consent of the NFL.)
But "the NFL typically does not own copyrights in the still photos that it uses because the vast majority of photos are created by freelance photographers working 'on spec,'" according to the complaint.
Beginning in 2003, the NFL began relying more heavily on licensing arrangement with stock photography agencies, including Getty Images.
"(I)n 2007, Getty Images obtained exclusive commercial licensing rights for NFL-related photos," the complaint states. "Getty Images retained the exclusive NFL licensing rights until 2009."
All seven plaintiffs say that at various times in these years, they entered into licensing agreements with Getty Images, for their NFL photos and other photos.
The complaint states: "In or about 2009, the NFL accepted new bids for the exclusive right to grant commercial licenses related to NFL-related photographic content. The NFL eventually selected AP's bid and the NFL and AP subsequently entered into an exclusive licensing agreement.
"As a direct consequence of the NFL's decision to grant an exclusive license to AP, plaintiffs lost the ability to sell higher-value commercial licenses, as opposed to editorial licenses, through Getty Images. Thus, if plaintiffs wished to continue offering commercial licenses for their NFL content, they were forced to transition their NFL collections to AP.