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Copyrighted Images: Individual Works Registered in Group Are Protected


Franchise Agreement LawyerState Bar Certified Specialist, Franchise & Distribution Lawby Tal Grinblat


Stock photo agency, Alaska Stock, LLC, registered groups of photographs with the Copyright Office. In custom with Copyright Office regulations, individual photos and photographers were not all listed on the registrations. Alaska Stock simply registered the group of photos s as "Alaska Stock CD Catalog 1, 2, 3…"

The name of author on the copyright applications and resulting registrations listed three photographers and a specified number of others for each catalog, i.e., John Doe, Jane Smith, Joe Black and 98 others. The compilations of photographs each contained hundreds, and even thousands of photographs submitted by 32 to 106 individual photographers.

This method was prescribed by the Register of Copyrights.

This suit arose when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, who licensed certain photographs from Alaska Stock, published far more images than they paid for. Alaska Stock therefore sued for injunctive relief, actual and statutory damages, attorneys' fees and associated costs arising from Houghton Mifflin's copyright infringement.

In 2010, a District Court in Alaska ruled against Alaska Stock, citing previous rulings (Muench Photography  v. Houghton Mifflin 2010, and Bean v. McDougal Littell 2008), as well as sections 409 and 411 of the Copyright Act.

The District Court held Alaska Stock’s registrations were defective because Alaska Stock did not provide the names of each of the photographers and the titles of each of the photographs in the registrations. Accordingly, the district court found the registrations succeeded in registering the catalogs themselves (as a whole), but not the individual photographs within them. On March 18, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding in Alaska Stock’s favor.


Copyright Act of 1976: What Does It Say?

The district court first questioned whether Alaska Stock could claim copyright infringement in the individual photographs, as Section 411 of the Copyright Act requires a registration to sue for infringement. The court then looked to the Copyright Act’s procedures for registration. 

Section 409 of the Copyright Act specifies that applications for registration must include:


  1. Name and address of copyright claimant

  2. For anonymous works: Name, nationality or domicile of authors, and date of death if author is deceased

  3. For anonymous works: Name, nationality or domicile of authors

  4. Statement, if work is made for hire

  5. For copyright claims made by non-authors: statement of how claimant obtained copyright ownership

  6. Title of the work

  7. Year of completion of work

  8. Date and nation of first publication, if published

  9. Identification of preexisting work if the work is a compilation or derivative

  10. Other information bearing upon the preparation, identification, existence, ownership or duration of the copyright


Accordingly, the district court found the registrations were defective because they did not disclose the names of the authors of the individual photographs or the title of any individual photograph.

Ninth Circuit: The Big Picture

The court of appeal reversed finding that a title of a work can refer to a collection (which Alaska Stock did), and that as the author of the collective work, only Alaska Stock’s name was needed on the application. This was because when the applications were filed, the authors of the individual photographs had assigned their rights in the photos to Alaska Stock, so that Alaska Stock owned both the photos within the collection and the collection itself.

The court of appeal found that the Register of Copyrights has the authority to prescribe the method for registering a body of work under a single title and/or listing.  As a result, the Court held that Alaska Stock successfully registered the copyright both to its collections and to the individual images within the collections.

Practitioners Note:  since the time of Alaska Stock’s Copyright registrations were issued, the Copyright Office changed its procedures for registering published and non-published collections of photographs. Now all authors of the photographs must be the same and applicants must assign a title to each photograph deposited and specify the title on both the application form and the deposit itself. See Group Registration of Published Photos or Group Registration of Unpublished Photos for details.

Tal Grinblat is an Intellectual Property Attorney at our firm. Email or call 818.907.3284 for more information. 


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