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By Blake Brittain
March 20 — Photographs from a car accident are not original works under copyright law, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled March 16.
The court ruled that the photographer's assertion that he had chosen the lighting and camera angles of the pictures, without any supporting evidence of conscious lighting and angle choices, was not sufficient to establish that the photos were eligible for copyright protection.
The court also noted that even if the photographs had been protectable, a strong fair use argument would have existed because the photographs were likely used to evaluate an insurance claim.
Rodney Rigsby, Catherine Conrad and Quincy Neri—who, the court noted, have “filed a dozen lawsuits in this court alone (and many more in state court)”—said that Conrad had been involved in a car accident in 2014.
Conrad's expenses were covered by her mother's insurance policy from Erie Insurance Co.
Rigsby, Conrad and Neri sued Erie and three other defendants for, among other things, “infring[ing] plaintiffs’ copyright by distributing plaintiffs work product from the auto accident,” the court said.
The court said that the only examples provided of the work at issue were “ ‘accident photos taken on Mr. Rigsby's cell phone' and ‘a written statement' of the other driver.”
The court also dismissed the claim that the other driver's written statement was the plaintiffs' property.
Moving to the issue of the photographs, the court also rejected plaintiffs' argument that the photographer's choice and lighting or camera angles made the photos an “original work” eligible for copyright protection.
“Every photograph must be taken at some angle and in some light. Plaintiffs do not identify any conscious choices they made regarding lighting or camera angles for the purpose of being ‘original,' ” Judge Barbara S. Crabb said. “Without more specific allegations, I decline to find that photographs of a car accident qualify as an original work under copyright law.”
The court also ruled that the plaintiffs failed to specify how Erie infringed the alleged copyright, and that even if the photos were protectable, Erie's conduct was likely fair use.
“The only reasonable inference is that plaintiffs provided the photographs as part of the review of the Conrads’ insurance claim,” the court said. “It is difficult to imagine how it could not be fair use for an insurer to copy or distribute a photograph for the purpose of evaluating an insured’s claim.”
The court granted Erie's motion to dismiss and gave the plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their complaint.
The plaintiffs represented themselves. Erie was represented by Philip C. Reid of Von Briesen & Roper SC, Madison, Wis.
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