Twitter Does Not Mean Copyright Free, Court Rules

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Publishing something on Twitter is not the same as relinquishing ownership, the US District Court has ruled to the relief of millions of Twitter users worldwide. District Court Judge William Pauley has disallowed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that photographer Daniel Morel has brought against Agence France-Presse for using his work without credit or compensation after he had uploaded them to TwitPic.

Morel shared photographs from the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake via the service, only to be later published by AFP, Newsweek and other news agencies who improperly credited them to Lisandro Suero, a Dominican Republic citizen who had illegally copied the pics before selling them as his own to AFP and other organizations. When Morel filed suit against the agencies using his work, AFP made the surprising move of claiming that what it had done was legal because it was no different than other Twitter users retweeting other’s posts; lawyers for AFP explained that, in their view, Morel had “provided a nonexclusive license to use his photographs when he posted them on a social networking and blogging website known as Twitter without any limitation on the use, copying or distribution of the photographs.”

Judge Pauley didn’t agree. In his ruling, he writes,

By their express language, Twitter’s terms grant a license to use content only to Twitter and its partners. Similarly, Twitpic’s terms grant a license to use photographs only to “Twitpic.com or affiliated sites.” AFP and the Third-Party Defendants do not claim they are partners of Twitter or affiliates of Twitpic licensed under the terms of service. Moreover, the provision that Twitter “encourage[s] and permit[s] broad re-use of Content” does not clearly confer a right on other users to re-use copyrighted postings. Rather, that permissive language stands in contrast to the express, mandatory terms conferring a “license” and “rights” on Twitter.

With AFP’s motion to dismissed denied, Morel’s suit against AFP, as well as the organizations that further distributed his images, such as CNN, ABC and CBS, will proceed in the new year.

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