BuzzFeed lawsuit over celeb snaps raises copyright questions

A photo agency is demanding $1.3 million from BuzzFeed after the viral news site published photos of singer Katy Perry and actress Kathy Griffin. The case comes at a time when online media is increasingly image-based, and raises questions about whether current copyright law is still working.

Credit: Marvix Photo

First, the facts. Florida-based Mavrix Photo filed a complaint in LA this week that claims BuzzFeed deliberately scraped the celebrity images as part of an effort to drive traffic to the site. It cited nine photos, including Perry on a rooftop (see right) and Griffin dancing topless (NSFW, obviously).

On its face, the case seems straightforward enough: even if celebrity photos are inane, people want to see them and photographers have a right earn a living by snapping them. Why should BuzzFeed or anyone else use them for free?

But it’s not that simple. That’s because Mavrix appears to be in the business of copyright trolling — scouring the internet for unauthorized use of its images and threatening anyone who uses them with million dollar lawsuits. This practice has recently degenerated into lawyers recruiting other lawyers to hunt down a hit list of alleged infringers with a promise to share the bounty.

The legal dilemma is a result of the very big stick that the law gives to copyright owners — the right to seek damages of up to $150,000 for each single infringement. This penalty has its place as a nuclear option of sorts to stop or deter serial infringers. Unfortunately, some image owners are brandishing the nuclear option against everyone — from small blogs to careless interns (who may have been responsible for the BuzzFeed shots)  — without taking any account of the actual harm done by the copyright infringement. Instead of a simple request to take the image down (which most people would comply with), we get a legal train wreck.

In age when images are everywhere (Tumblr, Pinterest, BuzzFeed, an so on), the $150,000 nuclear option seems impractical and unfair except in the most egregious cases. A better option would be for Congress to consider crafting some type of small claims court for copyright with graduated penalties for repeat offenders.

Buzzfeed stated it’s looking into the lawsuit but declined to comment further. You can read the complaint and see the offending pictures for yourself below:

Mavrix v BuzzFeed
(Image by Yuri Arcurs via Shutterstock)