As we continue to rely on digital platforms to share and consume visual content, image copyright infringement cases have surged, posing a significant challenge for creators to safeguard their intellectual property.

The ease of replicating and circulating images with a simple click of a button has complicated the process of protecting original works.

As a result, navigating the intricate landscape of copyright law has become crucial for photographers, artists, and publishers seeking to secure their rights.

These professionals often find themselves in legal battles to safeguard their work and ensure that their rights are upheld.

From landmark cases involving renowned artists to legal tussles sparked by social media platforms, image copyright infringement cases offer a compelling insight into the ever-evolving landscape of intellectual property rights and the challenges that creators and users must navigate in the digital era.

In this exploration of fascinating cases, we’ll delve into the intricate relationship between creative liberty, technological progress, and legal safeguarding.

Moreover, we’ll analyse the potential effects on the future of content sharing and artistic expression on the internet.

What is Image copyright?

Image copyright is a form of intellectual property law that grants exclusive rights to the creator or owner of an original image.

This implies that the creator or rightful owner possesses the legal authority to regulate the image’s usage, distribution, and replication.

Image copyright encompasses all forms of visual content, including but not limited to photographs, illustrations, and digital graphics.

This legal framework aims to safeguard the rights of creators, preventing unauthorised use or reproduction of their work.

What is Image Copyright Infringement?

Image copyright infringement occurs when someone uses copyrighted images without permission or proper licensing.

The creator of an image holds exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and display their work.

Unauthorised use of copyrighted images can result in legal consequences, including lawsuits, fines, and damage to one’s reputation.

Understanding Copyright Laws

Fair Use

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows the use of copyrighted material for specific purposes, such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research.

There are four factors considered when determining fair use: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and the effect of the use on the potential market for the original work.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) is a nonprofit organisation that provides licensing options for creators to share their work with the public while still retaining certain rights.

CC licenses offer various levels of permissions and restrictions, giving creators control over how their work can be used and shared.

How to Use Images on Social Media Without Infringing?

When using images on social media, it’s essential to understand which types of images can be legally shared to avoid copyright infringement.

Here are some categories of images that you can typically use on social media without violating copyright laws:

Images you created: If you’ve taken a photograph or created a graphic yourself, you hold ownership rights and can legally share the image on social media.

Public domain images: Images in the public domain are no longer protected by copyright, either because the copyright has expired or the creator has relinquished their rights. These images can be freely used on social media without any legal concerns.

Creative Commons licensed images: Creative Commons licenses are a set of licensing options that allow creators to share their work under specific terms. When using Creative

Commons images, ensure you follow the specific license’s requirements, such as providing proper attribution and adhering to any restrictions on commercial purpose or modification.

Images with explicit permission: If you’ve obtained permission from the copyright holder to use their image on social media, you can legally share the image.

Make sure to comply with any conditions set by the rights holder, such as crediting them or linking them back to their website.

Stock images: Many websites offer stock images that can be legally used on social media, either for free or with a paid subscription. When using stock images, carefully read and follow the terms of the licensing agreement.

Fair use: In some cases, copyrighted images may be legally used under the fair use doctrine. Fair use allows the use of copyrighted material for specific purposes, such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research.

However, fair use can be a complex area of image copyright law, and its application may depend on several factors. Consult with a legal expert if you’re unsure whether your use of an image qualifies as fair use.

Always be cautious when using images on social media, and ensure you have the right to share them.

When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid using an image without proper permission or licensing.

9 Image Copyright Infringement Cases

The McCloskey’s Lawsuit: Navigating Image Copyright and Responsibility in Photojournalism

Last summer, while covering a George Floyd protest in St. Louis, photojournalist William Greenblatt found himself on a private street with a group of marchers.

It was there that he captured a powerful image of Mark and Patricia McCloskey standing on their front lawn holding guns.

Little did he know that the photo would soon go viral and even be turned into a greeting card by the McCloskeys themselves.

When Greenblatt discovered this unauthorised use of his image on Twitter, he took action by billing the couple and sending a cease-and-desist letter.

The lawsuit filed by the McCloskeys alleges that Greenblatt trespassed on their property and took the image without permission.

The court is being requested to transfer ownership of the images to them.

They argued that the photo had caused them “significant national recognition and infamy,” leading to “humiliation, mental anguish, severe emotional distress, and death threats.”

This case highlights the complex legal and ethical issues surrounding image copyright and the use of images in the public domain.

While the McCloskeys may have felt that their rights were violated, Greenblatt’s perspective as a photojournalist also holds weight.

It raises questions about the responsibilities of photographers, the rights of subjects, and the potential consequences of viral images in the digital age.

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BuzzFeed’s Copyright Infringement Case: Lessons on Proper Image Use and DMCA Liability

In a recent case of image infringement, a BuzzFeed writer used a photo captured by photographer Gregory Mango for the New York Post without his permission.

To make matters worse, the writer replaced Mango’s photo credit with the name of a law firm related to the story itself.

Mango filed a lawsuit against BuzzFeed for unauthorised use of his image and violation of the DMCA by removing his CMI.

BuzzFeed fought back in court, appealing a previous ruling and arguing that it couldn’t be held responsible for future third-party infringement because there was no evidence that it knew its actions would lead to such infringement.

The court ruled against BuzzFeed’s argument and held the company accountable for third-party infringement.

This case highlights the importance of obtaining permission and properly crediting photographers for their work.

It also serves as a reminder of the legal protections afforded to photographers under the DMCA and the consequences of violating those protections.

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, it is crucial for both publishers and photographers to stay informed and proactive about image copyright issues.

Check out the linked article to learn about DMCA copyright protection.

Unpublished Celebrity Photos: Fair Use or Copyright Infringement?

Monge v. Maya Magazines was a case that involved the unauthorised use of secret celebrity wedding photographs by a Spanish-language celebrity gossip magazine.

The magazine used the photographs as the centerpiece of their story and added only minimal written commentary.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this use was not transformative and did not change the inherent character of the images.

Despite the fact that the photographs were newsworthy, the court found that the use was not protected by fair use due to the minimal transformation and commercial nature of the magazine’s use.

The court ultimately rejected Maya Magazine’s fair use defense, finding in favor of the copyright owner.

This case is notable for its discussion of the first factor of the fair use test and the requirement of transformation for a use to be considered fair.

Related Article: Copyright infringement and fair use

Daniel Morel vs. Getty Images and Agence France-Presse: A Lesson in Social Media and Copyright

In a landmark case involving photojournalist Daniel Morel, Getty Images, and Agence France-Presse (AFP), the issue of copyright protection for images shared on social media platforms took center stage.

Photographer Morel filed a lawsuit against Getty Images and AFP for unauthorised use and distribution of photos he had captured during the 2010 Haiti earthquake and posted on his Twitter account.

The outcome of the case highlighted the importance of understanding copyright laws in the context of social media.

Although Twitter permits posting and retweeting images, it does not grant users the right to commercially exploit photographs shared on the platform.

The jury sided with Morel and awarded him $1.2 million in damages.

Despite the ruling in favor of Morel, many people continue to mistakenly believe that copyright protection is forfeited when an image is posted on social media platforms.

However, as this case demonstrates, that assumption is incorrect and can lead to costly consequences for those who infringe upon the copyrights of others.

This legal battle serves as a crucial reminder of the importance of respecting intellectual property rights, even in the digital age of social media sharing.

Jonathon Mannion vs. Coors: A Case of Protecting Unique Elements in Photography

The case involving photographer Jonathon Mannion and the Coors beer brand highlights the importance of respecting the originality and creativity behind a photograph in copyright law.

Mannion took a striking photo of NBA player Kevin Garnett for SLAM magazine, which gained widespread recognition.

However, Coors later replicated this iconic image for a billboard advertisement in Los Angeles without Mannion’s permission.

Mannion sued Coors for copyright infringement, arguing that the company had unlawfully copied the unique elements and overall aesthetic of his photograph.

The court ruled in favor of Mannion, emphasising that factors such as originality, timing, and the creation of the subject matter can significantly impact the copyrightability of a photograph.

The victory in this case not only reinforced the importance of protecting a photographer’s creative work but also set a significant precedent for future cases involving copyright infringement in photography.

By recognising the unique aspects and overall aesthetic of a photo as integral to its copyright protection, the court sent a clear message about the importance of respecting and safeguarding the intellectual property rights of photographers and other creative professionals.

The Feist vs. Rural Case: A Turning Point in Copyright Protection

The Feist vs. Rural case is a significant legal precedent that had a lasting impact on copyright protection in the United States.

In this case, Feist Publications used 4,000 telephone directory entries from Rural Telephone Services in their phone book without permission.

Rural sued Feist for copyright violation, arguing that they had invested considerable effort in collecting and organising the directory information.

However, the court disagreed with Rural’s claim, ruling that their directory lacked copyright protection because it was merely an alphabetical listing of names and numbers.

This landmark decision fundamentally changed the legal standard for copyright protection.

The court emphasised that mere labor or effort in collecting data does not satisfy the originality requirement for copyright protection.

Instead, a minimum level of creativity is necessary for a work to qualify for copyright protection.

The Feist vs. Rural case established that originality is a critical factor in claiming copyright, and this principle extends to all forms of creative expression, including photography.

For a photographer to assert copyright protection over their work, they must create an original piece that stems from their unique creativity and effort, rather than merely copying or assembling pre-existing material.

This ruling has far-reaching implications and continues to shape copyright law today.

The Clark Rockefeller Case: Assessing Copyright Infringement in Photograph Recreation

In a case involving Sony Pictures and a newspaper photographer, the issue of copyright infringement in recreating a photograph’s composition and poses was brought to the forefront.

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Sony Pictures produced a television movie based on the Clark Rockefeller case, which featured a scene resembling a newspaper photograph of the suspect and abductee.

The photographer behind the original image claimed that the studio had violated his copyright by imitating the composition and poses of his work.

However, the District Court ruled that the similarities between the original photograph and Sony’s recreation were not substantial enough to constitute copyright infringement.

The court determined that the original photograph included several factual elements that were not eligible for copyright protection, such as the daughter riding on her father’s shoulders and the clothing they wore.

Additionally, the court noted that the framing, tone, and composition of Sony’s recreated image differed significantly from the original photograph.

This case highlights the complexity of assessing copyright infringement in instances where recreation is based on an existing photograph.

It demonstrates that, in some cases, similarities in pose and composition may not be enough to establish copyright infringement, particularly when other significant elements of the original work differ.

Richard Prince vs. Patrick Cariou: A Tussle Over Fair Use in Art and Digital Media

The legal battle between artist Richard Prince and photographer Patrick Cariou explores the complex relationship between copyright, fair use, and the artistic process.

In his “Canal Zone” project, Prince used dozens of unlicensed photographs taken by Cariou, prompting Cariou to sue Prince for copyright infringement. In response, Prince invoked a “fair use” defense.

The outcome of the case initially favored Cariou, with the Southern District of New York ruling that Prince’s use of the photographs constituted infringement since he was not “commenting upon” the original works.

The decision was overturned by the Second Circuit, as they determined that Prince’s alleged infringements were transformative and therefore met the criteria for fair use.

The decision made by the judge to seize and dispose of Prince’s artwork sparked a discussion within the artistic and photography communities.

This ruling blurred the lines between commercial art and digital media, prompting questions about the boundaries of fair use and artistic expression.

Ultimately, the case between Prince and Cariou serves as a reminder of the delicate balance between respecting intellectual property rights and fostering creativity in the world of art and digital media.

It also highlights the controversial nature of the “fair use” defense and the ongoing challenge of determining its limits in the ever-evolving landscape of creative expression.

Mashable vs. Stephanie Sinclair: The Impact of Instagram Embeds on Copyright Infringement

The legal battle between Mashable and photographer Stephanie Sinclair centered on the use of Instagram’s embedded feature and its implications for copyright infringement.

After Sinclair refused to grant Mashable permission to share her photos, the website published them anyway using Instagram’s embed feature.

In response, Sinclair sued Mashable for copyright infringement, but initially lost the suit.

However, a court in New York later reopened the lawsuit following a similar case involving Newsweek and Instagram.

Instagram announced that it does not grant a sublicense to anyone who uses its “embed” feature to share a public photo.

The case involving Mashable and Stephanie Sinclair was resolved on February 11, 2021.

While the terms of the settlement remain confidential, Sinclair’s attorney stated that his client was satisfied with the outcome, and believed the case had influenced third-party publishers to refrain from embedding copyrighted photos or videos from Instagram without obtaining permission or a license from the copyright holder.

According to Ars Technica, this legal development could have significant implications for both professional photographers and the broader web culture.

While photographers may welcome the decision as it strengthens their position in negotiations with publishers, it also has the potential to alter the way content is shared and consumed on the internet.

This case serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding and respecting copyright laws when sharing content online, particularly when using features like Instagram’s embed tool.

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Framing the Importance of Copyright Protection for Photographs

Copyright protection for photographs is essential for several reasons, ensuring that the rights of photographers and original creators are respected and their work is protected.

The need for copyright protection in this area arises from the following factors:

Economic value: Professional photographers invest time, effort, and resources into creating high-quality images.

Copyright protection allows them to control the distribution and use of their work, ensuring that they can earn a fair income from their creations and secure their livelihood.

Artistic recognition: Copyright protection acknowledges the creativity and artistic effort that goes into producing a photograph. It ensures that photographers receive proper credit for their work and helps protect their reputation in the industry.

Control over usage: Copyright protection grants photographers the exclusive right to decide how their images are used, allowing them to control the context in which their work is displayed, and prevent unauthorised or inappropriate uses of their photographs.

Prevention of plagiarism: Copyright protection helps prevent plagiarism by legally prohibiting others from copying, distributing, or creating derivative works based on a copyrighted photograph without permission.

This encourages originality and discourages unethical practices in the photography industry.

Promotion of creativity: By providing legal protection and incentives for photographers to create original works, copyright protection helps promote creativity and innovation in the photography field, contributing to the diversity and richness of visual content available to the public.

Legal recourse: In case of unauthorised use or infringement, copyright protection offers photographers legal recourse to seek compensation and remedies, including monetary damages, injunctions, or the removal of infringing content.

In summary, copyright protection for photographs is crucial to safeguard the economic, artistic, and creative interests of photographers, maintain ethical standards in the industry, and ensure a diverse and vibrant photography landscape.

Avoiding Image Copyright Infringement

Obtaining Proper Licenses

When using images in your projects, it is essential to obtain the proper licenses from the copyright holder or a licensing agency.

Licensing agreements specify the terms under which you can use an image, such as duration, distribution, and modification rights.

Understanding Usage Rights

Different licenses come with varying usage rights. For example, some licenses may allow you to use an image for personal objectives but not for commercial purposes.

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Make sure to read and understand the terms of a license before using an image to avoid potential legal issues.

Seeking Permission from the Creator

If you cannot find a licensing option for an image, consider reaching out to the creator directly to seek permission for its use.

Many creators are willing to grant usage rights, especially if their work is credited and used respectfully.

Crediting the Source

Even if an image is available for use under a Creative Commons license or with the creator’s permission, it is important to credit the source.

Proper attribution acknowledges the creator’s work and can help avoid misunderstandings and potential legal disputes.

Navigating the Fine Line of Manipulating Copyrighted Images

Determining whether a copyrighted image has been manipulated enough to avoid copyright infringement can be challenging, as the concept of “transformative use” is subjective and often depends on the specific circumstances of each case.

However, there are some general guidelines that can help you assess whether your modifications are likely to be considered transformative and avoid copyright infringement:

  • Significant alteration: The changes you make to the image should be substantial and meaningful, altering the original work’s overall appearance, meaning, or message. Simple edits like resizing, cropping, or adding filters may not be sufficient.
  • New expression or message: Your manipulation should result in a new expression, idea, or message that is distinct from the original photo. The more your work differs from the original in terms of purpose and message, the more likely it is to be considered transformative.
  • Creative input: Your changes should involve a significant level of creative input or artistic effort. The more creativity you add to the work, the more likely it is to be seen as a new, original creation rather than a derivative of the copyrighted image.
  • Fair use factors: When assessing whether your manipulation qualifies as fair use, consider the four factors outlined in U.S. copyright law: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and the effect of the use on the potential market for the copyrighted work. If your manipulation leans in favor of these factors, it may be considered transformative and exempt from copyright infringement.

It’s important to remember that the determination of whether an image has been manipulated enough to avoid copyright infringement can vary depending on the specific facts of each case.

If you’re unsure about your work’s transformative nature, it’s always a good idea to consult a legal expert or seek permission from the copyright holder.


In conclusion, image copyright infringement cases serve as an essential reminder of the need to respect intellectual property rights in the digital age.

As technology continues to evolve and sharing content online becomes increasingly seamless, understanding the nuances of copyright laws and the limitations of fair use becomes more critical than ever.

These major copyright cases not only highlight the complexities surrounding copyright infringement but also demonstrate the potential consequences faced by those who disregard the rights of creators.

From the transformative nature of art in the Richard Prince vs. Patrick Cariou case to the implications of Instagram’s embedded feature in the Mashable vs. Stephanie Sinclair lawsuit, these copyright battles have shaped the way content is shared and consumed on the web.

They emphasise the importance of obtaining proper permissions or licenses before using images and encourage responsible sharing practices.

By learning from these cases, individuals and businesses alike can better navigate the intricacies of copyright law and foster a more respectful online environment for creators and consumers alike.

Moreover, they can also benefit from the services of Bytescare, a company that offers content security solutions using AI to track, report and protect digital content piracy and infringement.

FAQs on Copyright Infringement Photography Cases

What is image copyright infringement?

Image copyright infringement occurs when someone uses copyrighted images without permission or proper licensing from the creator.

What is fair use?

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows the use of copyrighted material for specific purposes, such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without obtaining permission from the copyright holder.

What are creative commons licenses?

Creative Commons licenses are a set of licensing options provided by the Creative Commons nonprofit organisation that allows creators to share their work with the public while still retaining certain rights.

How can I avoid image copyright infringement?

To avoid image copyright infringement, obtain proper licenses, understand usage rights, seek permission from creators, and credit the source of the image.

Can animals hold copyrights?

No, animals cannot hold copyrights. This was established in the legal case involving photographer David Slater and the monkey selfie.

What happens if an image is copyrighted?

If an image is copyrighted, it means the creator or owner of the image has exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, display, and create derivative works based on the image. Unauthorised use of a copyrighted image may result in legal consequences, such as fines or lawsuits for copyright infringement.

How do I know if the image is copyrighted?

To know if an image is copyrighted, you can check for copyright notices, watermarks, or other indications of ownership.

You can also search for the image on copyright registries or contact the content creators directly to obtain permission for use.

How to use photo references without violating copyright?

To use photo references without infringing on the exclusive rights of the owner, it’s important to either get permission from the original owner or use images that are licensed for free or creative use.

You can also create your own reference material by taking your own photographs.