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Attorney sues hundreds over use of city skyline picture

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Attorney Richard Bell says his picture of the Indianapolis skyline is worth $1,500 or so if you’ve posted it on your website without first paying him to license it.

Bell said he’s found about 300 people using the photo he took in 2000. According to court documents, the photo was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2011, after which Bell’s demand letters and lawsuits began to fly. Bell said most defendants settled, with fewer than 10 defendants scheduled to go to court Sept. 29 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.

Defendants call Bell a copyright troll or worse. His litigation has survived dismissal motions, and this month Judge Tanya Walton Pratt denied a counterclaim that Bell abused the legal process in one of three cases still pending.
 

richbell-1-15col.jpg Attorney and photographer Richard Bell poses by the Central Canal in downtown Indianapolis, near where he snapped a photo he says hundreds of people have posted online in violation of copyright laws. He acknowledges defendants have called him a copyright troll and worse. (IL Photo/ Eric Learned)

“The essence of it is they called me a digital extortionist,” Bell said, but he claims the law is on his side. His lawsuits allege not just copyright infringement and unfair competition, but also theft.

“Defendants have realized and continue to realize profits and other benefits rightfully belonging to Plaintiff,” Bell asserts in his suits that seek treble damages and attorney fees available under 17 U.S.C. §§ 504 and 505.

“There are members of the public that think that they can steal photographs off a website and use it, and it’s theft, just plain and simple,” he said. “If you walked onto my property and took down my tree or if you stole my car … it’s essentially the same thing.”

Bell said he’s licensed the photo to several people for a fee of $200 through the website www.richbellphotos.com. He justifies his litigation and tactics by invoking the 1970s Fram Oil Filter TV commercial – “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”

As was implied in those commercials, later costs more. “I ask (defendants) to take it down and compensate me,” Bell said, acknowledging his price often rises with the passage of time.

More than 100 defendants resolved before cases were filed, about 75 defendants settled after suits were filed, a few cases were dismissed for jurisdictional issues and just a handful of defendants remain, he said.

“You can see I take this kind of seriously,” said Bell, who claims he’s retired and just protecting his proprietary rights to the copyrighted image.

Fighting back

Jessica Wilch is no lawyer, but she said she’s gotten an education through her involvement in one of Bell’s cases.

“I’m a layperson, but if you look at the actions going on here, I feel there’s something that’s wrong in the legal system, and he’s taking advantage of it,” Wilch said.

In her work as a Web designer, Wilch is diligent about checking out images before using them. “I always check to see the images I use are royalty-free and fair use.”

So when she was designing a website for real estate agent Shanna Cheatham and seeking a stock photo for an Indianapolis community information page, she did what Web designers often do. She checked Google images for a generic image of the city skyline. Bell’s photo was among those that most prominently popped up, so she checked it out.

“There was no copyright, no trademark” information, Wilch said. “I even checked the metadata. … That particular image, the metadata is stripped out.” So she used it.

Wilch said a year or two went by before Cheatham received a letter from Bell along with a copy of a civil suit naming her. Wilch said Cheatham told her that Bell was demanding $200 by the end of the business day. The price later rose to $500, Wilch said.


skyline-photo-15col.jpg This photo of the Indianapolis skyline taken in 2000 was copyrighted years later by attorney and photographer Richard Bell, who has brought federal copyright lawsuits against hundreds of defendants who posted the image on their websites without first obtaining a license to use the photo. (Photo submitted)

Wilch, who isn’t a defendant but may be a defense witness, said that after her client received Bell’s notice, she called Bell. She informed him that as a courtesy, the image would be removed from the website, but she also asked for proof of ownership of the photo. Wilch said she became skeptical after Bell said the photo’s presence on his website, which she said she’d never seen, was proof enough.

“We’ve been contesting this whole thing, and Mr. Bell has not produced any document that shows he owns the photograph,” she said.

Carmel attorney John W. Nelson is defending Cheatham and other remaining defendants in Richard N. Bell v. Cameron Taylor, et al., 1:11-CV-0766. Nelson declined to comment on the pending case.

Outdated laws?

Wilch believes copyright laws haven’t kept pace with the digital age. “The Internet has opened up a Pandora’s box when it comes to imaging,” she said. “If you take a picture on your phone and put it on the Web, who owns it? Who can use it?”

Bell said he’s using the legal remedies available to him and disregards those who argue copyright laws are lagging.

“Every single website that you create or anybody creates has an agreement with your website host that says you’re not allowed to put anything on that website that’s not your property,” he said.

But in cases where actual ownership and copyright status of digital media is not readily clear, the bar for litigants can be low.
 

overhauser-paul-mug Overhauser

Paul Overhauser is an attorney with offices in Greenfield and Indianapolis who writes the Indiana Intellectual Property Law News blog. He’s written about Bell’s cases and believes current copyright law may enable trolling.

“I think the (Bell) case demonstrates how copyright law needs to be updated,” Overhauser said. “What would be most helpful would be a requirement for a copyright owner to require them to identify themselves and include a copyright notice on the image.”

For defendants in such cases, the cost of settling is typically less than the cost of hiring an attorney, so many simply pay up even when they have a legitimate defense, Overhauser said. And because many defendants are businesses, their liability insurance policies often include clauses covering advertising injury that will pay that claim.

“The real hammer (Bell) has in these cases is that in the 7th Circuit, the prevailing party in a copyright infringement case has the ability to recover attorney’s fees,” Overhauser said. But he said he was surprised that the cases also asserted unfair competition and theft, which are pre-empted by the copyright statute.

Overhauser believes pleading those could damage Bell’s ability to recoup fees, even if the court rules in his favor on the copyright claim. If he doesn’t prevail on those others, Overhauser said, “that may discourage a court from awarding Mr. Bell attorney fees.”

Playing hardball

Defendants who infringe on copyrights online have no excuses, Bell said, though they offer a multitude of them. “I simply don’t buy the argument from anybody that when they put that on their website, that doesn’t fall into the category of willfully stealing.”

He acknowledges many of those who settled were loath to do so. “To say they really wanted to pay me probably would be stretching it,” he said. “A responsible lawyer and their clients, they obviously know it’s going to be far more expensive to try it.”

Pratt didn’t dismiss Bell v. Taylor in March when defendants argued abuse of process. But in dismissing a case with prejudice on jurisdictional grounds, Pratt wrote that Bell failed to state a claim. “Bell has alleged, but has not shown, that he is entitled to relief. His Complaint contains formulaic labels and conclusions, but not facts.”

Meanwhile, Wilch questions Bell’s tactics. She said after she began to ask questions about the original photo, Bell grilled her in a deposition lasting about nine hours. “People are settling because, in my opinion, there’s an abuse of power that’s intimidating to people,” Wilch said.

“This is awful, and it’s happening to people all over the country,” she said.•

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  • Copyright
    Why would any photographer put a photo on Google or an social network and expect to get paid? If it was so valuable you would have tried to sell it in a photograph site or had his own web site.Indy is not my first choice for photo art.Someone pointed out he has a divorce to pay for. he has had trouble with conflict of interest legally.not a nice guy.Most who post photos to google and other websites put a copyright mark so you can not copy the photo if it is for sale ,they also post their name and how to aquire the photo. Only in Indiana .who care about a lucky shot on your point and shoot....
  • Is It Really Worth It?
    It's not a picture of the Chicago skyline. So who cares?

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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