Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Travel Photographer-Writers and AOL in Nasty Legal Battle

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Travel Photographer-Writers and AOL in Nasty Legal Battle

Article excerpt

A contentious legal case involving America Online and two syndicated travel photographer-writers is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 16.

In August 1997, Ann and Carl Purcell sued AOL in U.S. District Court in San Francisco for copyright infringement. Two weeks ago, AOL countersued for trademark infringement.

The Purcells -- who said the case could significantly impact other photographers and writers on the Internet -- charged in last year's suit that their copyright was infringed upon during and after they ran an AOL photography forum between 1994 and 1997.

But AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said the online service thinks the Purcells may have filed the $5 million suit because AOL ended their forum.

"They were very disappointed when AOL decided not to renew their contract and it's unfortunate that their response was to manufacture a lawsuit," Primrose stated. "We believe the suit is without merit."

The Purcells disagreed -- contending, for instance that a photo they took of the Supreme Court was used without permission to illustrate an AOL area about following legal rules.

"Our copyright on the edge of the Supreme Court image had been neatly and intentionally cropped out" recalled Carl, who said he and Ann included their copyright with each photo they uploaded to AOL

The Purcells also charged that their photos remained available on AOL for several weeks after the online service canceled their "Pictures of the World" forum in 1997.

And they said 742 Purcell photos were included, without permission, on an AOL area offering Web sites free clip art.

Ann noted that she and her husband sell their photos for as much as $15,000 an image when they guarantee exclusivity to the buyer -- so having the pictures placed in the public domain by AOL "devalued" their worth.

According to Carl, AOL claimed that "by uploading images into our forum, we had abandoned our copyright and they now owned our pictures."

He added, "Thousands, probably millions of users upload intellectual property into the various channels on AOL. How will they feel when they learn that AOL is claiming ownership of what they create?"

Primrose responded, "If our subscribers upload material, they give express permission to AOL and other subscribers to use the material. But this is not the case with content partners" -- which is what the Purcells were until 1997. …

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