Federal Court Hints Websites That Strip Metadata Could Face Copyright Liability

March 7th, 2014 by Wills Citty and tagged , , , , , , ,

A U.S. District Court in California recently hinted that online service providers who strip copyrighted photographs of their identifying information could forfeit “safe harbor” protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

District Judge Gonzalo Curiel found late last month that e-commerce vendor was not entitled to summary judgment on a claim it hosted and facilitated the sale of copyrighted photos, denying a request that an infringement case be dismissed under the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions.  The decision rested partly on the fact that when users upload photographs to, the website’s automated process strips the images of copyright information imprinted as metadata.

Cafe Press is a website that allows its users to upload images for printing on items like hats and t-shirts.  The plaintiff in the infringement case alleged that Cafe Press facilitated the storage and sale of the plaintiff’s copyrighted photographs of Alaskan Wildlife.  The plaintiff claimed that before the website disabled access to the images in response to the lawsuit, more than $6,000 in merchandise had been sold.

Under the DMCA, service providers that unknowingly store infringing images online are typically immune from damages, as long as they  meet requirements aimed at preventing violations.  Among those requirements, the provider must “accommodate and not interfere with standard technical measures” that copyright owners use to identify and protect their works.

Broadly speaking, “standard measures” are those that have been widely adopted by providers and copyright holders to prevent infringement.  Additionally, those measures must not overly burden providers.

Cafe Press disputed the claim that its upload process interferes by stripping the information, claiming metadata as an anti-infringement tool has not been “developed pursuant to a broad consensus of copyright owners and service providers in an open, fair, voluntary, multi-industry standards process.”

The court refused to accept this argument as a matter of law, holding that “[fr]om a logical perspective, metadata appears to be an easy and economical way to attach copyright information to an image.”  This means Cafe Press may be forced to defend its policy in later litigation.

The decision is a positive sign for photographers.  Within the industry, IPTC information stored in the metadata of photographs has proven one of the most effective and cost efficient tools for copyright holders to keep copyright information connected to digital images  Its legal relevance, however, its inexorably tied to the courts’s willingness to recognize it.  The Café Press decision is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Posted in Access, Legal, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism | 12 Comments »

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