Motorcycle manufacturer found liable for copyright infringement for using picture of his son. GUNNELLS v. TEUTUL

Motorcycle manufacturer found liable for copyright infringement for using picture of his son. GUNNELLS v. TEUTUL

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of an original work of art when the art is fixed in a tangible form.  The creator of an original work of art is granted the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display, perform, transmit and make derivative copies. Registering the work with the United States Copyright Office will strengthen the exclusive rights granted by copyright law, but is not necessary for a copyright to be granted.  If someone other than the copyright owner exercises one of the exclusive rights granted by copyright law, that is considered copyright infringement. A copyright owner can sue to stop copyright infringement with an injunction and to get monetary damages for infringement which has occurred.

Copyright law is an interesting branch of law that can sometimes be counter intuitive.  Celebrities frequently have their picture taken, one would think that a celebrity would have some property interest in a photograph of themselves.  It would be logical that the person in a photograph has some claim to the photograph.  After all, a photograph of a celebrity has increased value because the photograph is of the celebrity.  However, this is not the case, copyright law goes not grant the subject of a photograph any claim to the photograph, even if it was taken without permission.  Absent an agreement otherwise, a photograph is the property of the photographer.

This can lead to legal troubles for people that reproduce images of themselves without the permission of the copyright holder.  Celebrities that use a copyrighted image without the permission of the photographer can find themselves liable for copyright infringement.

GUNNELLS v. TEUTUL, 19-cv-05331 (S.D.NY 2019) is a case which involves the subject of a copyrighted work reproducing the copyrighted work without authorization of the copyright owner.  The defendant in this case is the owner of a custom motorcycle manufacturer in New York state named Orange County Choppers.  The defendant and his family starred in a reality television show that revolved around their motorcycle business.  The show was quite popular and the family made quite a bit of money selling motorcycles and merchandise related to the show.

The plaintiff in this case is a photographer that took a picture of one of the defendant’s son.  The photograph was published with a watermark.  At some point the photograph was placed on merchandise sold by the defendant at his store and on his website.  The plaintiff sued for copyright infringement.  Specifically the plaintiff claimed that the defendant was selling apparel featuring a derivative work made from the plaintiff’s copyrighted photograph.  An example of the infringing merchandise is reproduced above.  The defendant failed to answer the complaint and a judgment of $258,484.45 was entered against the defendant, his son and the business.

While a default judgement is not the same as a judgment on the merits, the result is the same the defendant has been found liable for copyright infringement.

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