Licensing restrictions and usage rights at the heart of Houghton-Mifflin copyright case

By Jamie Kelly | May 23, 2016

PHILADELPHIA — It can be difficult for companies with large numbers of images to keep track of the licenses they have for each, but they have a legal responsibility to do so, according to an advocate for simplifying image rights management.

Michael Keller, a photographer, recently filed a copyright infringement suit against Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company in March, claiming the company improperly used photos that it had licensed from him through photo licensing agency The Stock Market.

The suit claims that Houghton Mifflin printed more copies than allowed and used the photo in more publications than allowed under the license the company purchased.

“Once you begin using (an image), you have to have a way to know when your rights expire or when you reach a maximum or a limitation that's specified in your agreement, so that you know to stop using it or to go back to the rights holder to acquire the additional rights necessary to keep using it,” Professor Jeffery Sedlik, president and CEO of the PLUS Coalition, recently told the Pennsylvania Record.

“It's no easy task, but it is a legal responsibility to avoid using images in a manner for which you do not have the rights.”

Sedlik - a professor at the Art Center College of Design and an expert witness who regularly testifies about copyright, stock photography and other issues related to photography - founded the PLUS Coalition with the goal of simplifying and facilitating the communication of image rights.

“The business model for visual artists, for the most part, is to grant licenses to customers who are able to make use of some of the visual artist's exclusive rights, subject to the provisions of the license that was granted,” Sedlik said.

Those restrictions can come in a variety of forms, including size, location, medium of publication and, as in the case Keller has brought, number of times an image is used.

The license terms can vary based on the amount paid, the way the image is being used and other variables, all of which companies must track, Sedlik said.

“You need to take steps to make sure you know what rights you have to each image that are sitting there on your server, or in the cloud, or wherever,” he said.

“From the rights holder’s side, a photographer's ability to feed his or her family or to pay the mortgage or to put their kids in college is dependent, directly, on them being paid when their clients use their images.”

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