Most discussions about fair use revolve around people wanting to use photographs without paying or obtaining permission for the use. Of course there’s another side to fair use that photographers benefit from, which is when a picture has copyrighted or trademarked material in it.
Seattle photographer Mike Hipple found himself in the latter scenario when in February of 2008 he received a letter from the lawers of a sculptor named Jack Mackie. Apparently a photograph that Mike took 10 years previous and was selling as stock, featured a woman dancing along the sidewalk with a portion of Jack’s sculpture “Dance Steps on Broadway” visible. Mr. Mackie claimed copyright infringement in the letter.
My source for this information is a blog called “Mike Hipple Legal Defense Fund” (here) where Mike describes what happened and describes what he’s up against:
Interestingly, his brief flirtation with settlement came before my lawyer mentioned fair use. As soon as it was brought it up, Mr. Mackie refused to negotiate any further. Now I’m forced to fight this battle on behalf of myself and photographers everywhere—amateur or professional—who take pictures out in public. I don’t want to be here, but I can’t let Mr. Mackie bully away our important rights.
I should note that apparently Mike’s stock agency quickly settled with the sculptor using their insurance for these types of claims.
Without seeing the photograph in question this seems like an absurd case, but the problem with fair use as it exists now is that only a court can determine what constitutes fair use. That leaves Mike with the option to either fight it in court or settle. In an era where photographs are easily copied I think fair use needs a stronger definition.