Buzz-sawed: Give Copyright Credit or Face Statutory Damages, Fees, Costs

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The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s award of statutory damages where the defendant knowingly distributed a photograph without first getting permission to use the photograph. Gregory Mango v. BuzzFeed, Inc., Case No.19-446 (2nd Cir. Aug.13, 2020) (Park, J.).

Gregory Mango, a freelance photographer, sued BuzzFeed, an online media company, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), for using one of his photographs in a news article without first obtaining his permission and crediting him. Mango asserted copyright infringement, alleging that BuzzFeed removed or altered the copyright management information (CMI), a violation under the DMCA. Mango sought statutory damages of $30,000 for his copyright infringement claim, $5,000 for his DMCA claim, and attorney’s fees. BuzzFeed argued that it could not be held liable under the DMCA because there was no evidence that it knew its conduct would lead to future, third-party infringement of Mango’s copyright.

The photo at issue was of Raymond Parker, who was the lead figure in a discrimination lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors in New York. The New York Post licensed the photo and published it, including Mango’s name in an attribution known as “gutter credit.” A few months later, BuzzFeed published an article about Parker and used Mango’s photo. The BuzzFeed journalist did not ask for permission to use the photo; instead, he listed the name of Parker’s attorneys’ law firm in the gutter credit. The journalist, a six-year veteran at BuzzFeed, had written more than 1,000 articles for the company, all of which included a photograph, and it was his custom to give credit to the photographers by “name or by photo outlet.” However, in this case, he asked the law firm for a photo of Parker but ultimately downloaded the photo from the New York Post website himself and attributed the photo to the law firm.

Prior to a bench trial, BuzzFeed stipulated to liability on the copyright infringement claim. The district court noted that under “Section 1202(b)(3) of the DMCA, plaintiffs must prove (1) actual knowledge … that CMI was removed and/or altered without permission and (2) constructive knowledge … that such distribution will induce, enable, facilitate or conceal an infringement.” The court found that Mango’s gutter credit constituted CMI and that BuzzFeed knew that the CMI had been removed and altered without permission, rejecting the journalist’s claims that he had believed he obtained permission and that BuzzFeed had reasonable grounds to know that such removal and distribution was infringement. The court found BuzzFeed liable on both claims and awarded Mango $8,750 in statutory damages and $65,132 in attorney’s fees. BuzzFeed appealed.

The Second Circuit determined that the district court correctly applied the DMCA in the case, finding that the journalist had distributed Mango’s photo knowing that his gutter credit had been removed or altered without Mango’s permission and distributed it with a gutter credit of the law firm, knowing that doing so would conceal that he did not have permission to use the photo.

BuzzFeed argued that the district court erred because it failed to prove that BuzzFeed had constructive knowledge of likely future, third-party infringement. The Second Circuit rejected BuzzFeed’s argument, finding that Section 1202(b)(3) of the DMCA encompasses “an infringement that, upon distribution, will conceal the fact of that infringement.” Because Mango had proven the underlying claim of copyright infringement, that ultimately supported the knowing concealment of that infringement. The Court therefore affirmed the district court’s finding.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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