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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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  • People like her vote...
    You can put your photos anywhere you like... When someone steals it they know it doesn't belong to them. And, a man getting a divorce is automatically not a nice guy...? That's ridiculous. Since when is need of money a conflict of interest? That would mean that no one should have a job unless they are already financially solvent without a job... A photographer is also under no obligation to use a watermark (again, people know when a photo doesn't belong to them) or provide contact information. Hey, he didn't make it easy for me to pay him so I'll just take it! Well heck, might as well walk out of the grocery store with a cart full of food because the lines are too long and you don't find that convenient. "Only in Indiana." Oh, now you're passing judgement on an entire state... What state do you live in? I need to characterize everyone in your state as ignorant and opinionated. And the final bit of ignorance; assuming a photo anyone would want is lucky and then how much does your camera have to cost to make it a good photo, in your obviously relevant opinion?
  • 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 have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

    2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

    3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

    4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

    5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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