Ask Dr. Copyright

Dear Doc:

I know (because my attorney keeps reminding me) that transfers of copyright must be in writing and signed by the owner of the rights. How, then, could a recent case in Minnesota find that distributing a photographer’s pictures of Prince (the Artist, not the Ruler Formerly Known as Chuck, the Prince of Wales) without a signed, written agreement was legal?

Signed,
I’m So Confused (the unreleased track)

Dear SoCon:

The recent case of Beaulieu v. Stockwell comes to us from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and teaches us the value of actually reading the statute as it is written. 

In this case, Allen Beaulieu was a photographer who spent a great deal of time in strange locations taking photos of Prince, such as this one. According to the Court, “Allen Beaulieu was the artist Prince’s personal photographer from 1979 to 1984. He shot album covers and three world tours for him. In 1984, Beaulieu registered a copyright for his original photographs.” In 2014, Beaulieu started to work on a book of his photos. He hired Thomas Crouse to assist with the stories and captions. Then Clint Stockwell worked on scanning and storing digital copies. In April, May and June 2015, Beaulieu, Stockwell and Crouse inked three contracts. 

After the musician’s death in early 2016, the team expected increased interest in their book project, and Stockwell and Crouse created a digital video for use in securing an investor in the project. That video contained numerous Beaulieu Prince photos.

As things do, the venture fell apart, and Beaulieu demanded return of his photos and the digital versions, and when that did not happen immediately, he sued everyone in sight, including a potential investor. Suffice it to say that the trial court dispatched all of Beaulieu’s claims in summary judgment, and even awarded attorney fees to the investor. On appeal, the three judges of the panel were similarly unimpressed. 

The Court said, “Beaulieu’s silence, coupled with continued and normal interactions between him and the collaborators, implied his approval of the marketing plan and the corresponding distribution of his images, and thus showed an implied license.” Wait, the Doc hears you say, an IMPLIED license??? I thought that licenses had to be in writing, and signed!

The Doc says, “READ THE DARNED STATUTE” (or he would have said that, had he not actually said something crudely similar…). See 17 U.S.C. § 204(a): (a “transfer of copyright ownership … is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed”); and 17 U.S.C. § 101 (“transfer of copyright ownership” defined to exclude non-exclusive licenses).

So, there you have it, SoCon. What you THINK the law says, and what it ACTUALLY SAYS may differ by a country mile, especially in Minnesota. Best to actually know what the law is before you file that lawsuit.

Have a question about intellectual property law? Talk to the attorneys at LW&H. They actually know what the law says.

Until next month,

The “Doc”

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.