Court rejects ‘fair use’ defense in c’right case

Infringement ruling upheld

In a decision that could serve as a warning to publishers, a federal judge in N.Y. has upheld a copyright infringement claim involving the use of a single still photo culled from a motion picture.

Richard Feiner & Co. was granted summary judgment Wednesday in U.S. District Court in N.Y. against HRI Industries, which owns the Hollywood Reporter, for copyright infringement on the use of a Laurel & Hardy motion picture still that the paper ran in a March 1997 issue.

According to Gregory A. Sioris, the attorney representing Feiner, the most significant part of the ruling is the court’s rejection of the “fair use” defense to copyright infringement.

In rejecting HRI’s argument that the use of one still photo from an underlying work is de minimis, or legally insignicant, and therefore a fair use, the decision set an important precedent, reversing traditional fair use guidelines followed by magazines and newspapers.

The ruling, which only covers the southern district of New York in which the case was heard, can still be appealed by HRI. Execs at the Hollywood Reporter could not be reached for comment.

Feiner, who is the sole copyright holder and licensor for several Laurel & Hardy movies, initially sued HRI in October last year over the use of a motion picture still of Laurel & Hardy from their silent film “Liberty,” which is one of the films he owns. The photo shows the two comedians in a precarious predicament on top of a high-rise building under construction.

According to court documents, the newspaper bought the photo from Bison Archives, a stock photo agency. Both parties agreed that the photo was originally used as a promotional still for the MGM movie “Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20’s.” The Reporter colorized the photo and ran it as an intro to a “Crafts Series” section in their daily March 12, 1997 issue. The paper gave as attribution for the photo the stock house from which they bought it.

After Feiner sued the Reporter, the paper moved to dismiss Feiner’s complaint on several grounds including copyright permission by MGM, public domain and fair use. The court rejected all these defenses in its opinion granting summary judgment.