Photographic copyright: higher but wider?

25 January, 2012

The IP Kat blog has an interesting discussion of copyright infringement of photographs.

To cut a long story short, the High Court was asked to judge on whether copyright in the following image (created by a Mr Fielder, with the copyright owned by Temple Island Collections):

was infringed by the following image (used by New English Teas on the packaging for one of their products):

The court decided that the answer was yes, since the creators of the second image had been aware of the existence of the first image, and were unable to show they hadn’t copied it.

The case highlights a couple of points of general application.

1. Copyright in photographs

The court confirmed that a photograph will only attract copyright if it is the photographer’s own “intellectual creation”, and the judge suggested three aspects which could make a photograph “original”:

  • “specialities of angle of shot, light and shade, exposure and effects achieved with filters, developing techniques and so on”;
  • “creation of the scene to be photographed”;
  • “being in the right place at the right time”.

In this case, the court had no difficulty finding that the first image was Mr Fielder’s own intellectual creation, by reason of its composition and the visual contrasts involved. However, this is a long way from the traditional English law approach in which (as one IP textbook puts it) “pointing the camera at a subject and pressing the shutter” was considered enough to gain copyright protection.

This suggests that many photographs over which copyright is asserted may in fact fall outside the scope of its protection – though elements such as “being in the right place at the right time” would still seem to cast the net quite widely.

2. Infringing copyright in photographs

Again the traditional approach has been that infringing copyright in a photograph involved actually reproducing that photograph (or a substantial part of it). There was nothing to stop you taking your own photograph which happened to incorporate the same features as another image. As the IP Kat observes, this does seem to extend the scope of protection for photographs to include “an idea, a lay-out or a scheme for such a photograph”.

For this reason, it may be that the losing party in this case will hop on the next bus (sorry…) to the Court of Appeal. In the meantime, though, this case highlights some interesting issues in what can be a very sensitive area for photographers: on the one hand confirming that the bar for copyright protection is higher than previously thought, but on the other suggesting that the scope of protection, if acquired at all, may be wider than previously thought.