Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.
Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999), was a decision by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which ruled that exact photographic copies of public domain images could not be protected by copyright in the United States because the copies lack originality. Even though accurate reproductions might require a great deal of skill, experience and effort, the key element to determine whether a work is copyrightable under U.S. law is originality.
Corel Corporation sold, in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada, a CD-ROM called "Professional Photos CD Rom masters", which contained digitized images of paintings by European masters. Corel stated that it had obtained these images from a company called "Off the Wall Images", a company that no longer existed.
Bridgeman Art Library possessed a large library of photographs of paintings by European masters, as both transparencies and in digital form. The copyright terms on the paintings themselves had expired, but Bridgeman claimed that it owned a copyright on the photographs. It licensed copies of its photographs for a fee.
Bridgeman sued Corel. It claimed that since no other photographs of the public domain works had been authorized other than those that Bridgeman itself had been authorized to make, by the museums where the works were held, the only possible source for the digital images on Corel's CD-ROM was Bridgeman's own digitizations of its photographs. It claimed that since it owned the copyright on its photographs, Corel's copies were infringements of its copyright. Both parties moved for summary judgment.
On November 13, 1998, Judge Kaplan granted the defendant's motion for a summary dismissal of the suit. The court applied U.K. law to determine whether the plaintiff's photographs were copyrightable in the first place, and applied U.S. law to determine whether copyright had been infringed. It determined that Bridgeman's photographs were not original works, and could not be validly copyrighted under U.K. law. It further determined that even if the photographs were copyrightable, no infringement could be deemed to have occurred under U.S. law, because the only way in which Bridgeman's and Corel's photographs were similar was that "both are exact reproductions of public domain works of art," so the only similarity between the two works was an uncopyrightable element: the public domain material itself. Therefore, under well-settled U.S. law, there could be no infringement.
The entry of the first summary judgment caused the court, in the words of Judge Kaplan, to be "bombarded with additional submissions" from the plaintiff. The plaintiff moved, on November 23, for reconsideration and re-argument, on the grounds that the court's assessment of the copyrightability of the works was in error. In support of this motion it pointed to a certificate of copyright issued by the United States Register of Copyrights for one of Bridgeman's photographs, a photograph of the "Laughing Cavalier". It asserted that the certificate demonstrated the subsistence of copyright. It further argued that the court had mis-applied U.K. copyright law, by not following Graves' Case.
The court also received an unsolicited letter from William F. Patry, who argued that the court had been incorrect to apply U.K. law at all. The plaintiff moved for the court to receive an amicus curiae brief from The Wallace Collection, addressing the U.K. law issue.
The plaintiff's motions were granted. The amicus curiae brief was filed, both parties were given leave to address the points raised by Patry's letter, and the case was re-argued and reconsidered.
Kaplan commented on the plaintiff's motions in the subsequent summary judgment, saying:
At the outset, it is worth noting that the post-judgment flurry was occasioned chiefly by the fact that the plaintiff failed competently to address most of the issues raised by this interesting case prior to the entry of final judgment. In particular, while plaintiff urged the application of U.K. law, it made no serious effort to address the choice of law issue and no effort at all (apart from citing the British copyright act) to bring pertinent U.K. authority to the Court's attention before plaintiff lost the case. Indeed, it did not even cite Graves' case, the supposedly controlling authority that the Court is said to have overlooked.
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On February 26, 1999, Judge Kaplan again granted the defendant's motion for a summary dismissal of the suit, in a second summary judgment.
In the judgment Kaplan considered Patry's arguments, the Copyright Clause in Article One of the United States Constitution, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the Universal Copyright Convention, and the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 (BCIA). In particular, it considered sections 3(a) and 4(a) of the BCIA, which amend title 17, chapter 1, § 101 of the United States Code.
The court inferred from the provisions of the BCIA, and the absence of U.S. law to the contrary, that Congress had not granted foreign law the power to determine the issue of copyrightability in U.S. copyright actions. In other words, Congress did not adopt the Second Restatement's rule, under which the law of the state with the most direct relation to the property (i.e. the U.K. in this case) would apply. In particular, the wording of section 4(a) of the BCIA prohibits copyrights from being claimed "by virtue of, or in reliance upon, the provisions of the Berne Convention or the adherence of the United States thereto". The application of U.K. law in the case would be in reliance upon the Berne Convention, therefore it could not apply and U.S. law should be used to determine the copyrightability of the Bridgeman photographs.
Thus Kaplan applied U.S. law to the issue of copyrightability, rather than U.K. law as in the first judgment. The second judgment provided a more detailed statement of the court's reasoning than the first judgment did. The court held that photographs were "writings" within the meaning of the Copyright Clause. It cited Melville Nimmer's Nimmer on Copyright, which stated that there "appear to be at least two situations in which a photograph should be denied copyright for lack of originality". Kaplan considered one of those situations, as described by Nimmer, to be directly relevant, namely that "where a photograph of a photograph or other printed matter is made that amounts to nothing more than slavish copying". A slavish photographic copy of a painting thus, according to Nimmer, lacks originality and thus copyrightability under the U.S. Copyright Act.
Kaplan stated that there is "little doubt that many photographs, probably the overwhelming majority, reflect at least the modest amount of originality required for copyright protection", citing prior judgments that had stated that "[e]lements of originality [...] may include posing the subjects, lighting, angle, selection of film and camera, evoking the desired expression, and almost any other variant involved". But he ruled that the plaintiff, by its own admission, had performed "slavish copying", which did not qualify for copyright protection. "[I]ndeed", he elaborated, "the point of the exercise was to reproduce the underlying works with absolute fidelity". He noted that "[i]t is uncontested that Bridgeman's images are substantially exact reproductions of public domain works, albeit in a different medium".
Although the second judgment was based upon application of U.S. law, Kaplan added that "[w]hile the Court's conclusion as to the law governing copyrightability renders the point moot, the Court is persuaded that plaintiff's copyright claim would fail even if the governing law were that of the United Kingdom." He referred to the Privy Council case of Interlego v Tyco Industries for equivalent case law in the U.K., where it had been held that "[s]kill, labour or judgment merely in the process of copying cannot confer originality". Further, the Privy Council had held in Interlego that "[t]here must [...] be some element of material alteration or embellishment which suffices to make the totality of the work an original work", rendering the mere change in medium of a work, on its own, not sufficient for copyrightability. Thus the question of originality and copyrightability of a "slavish copy", even one where the medium changed (i.e. from a painting to a photograph, and thence to a digitization of that photograph), would be decided the same under U.K. law as under U.S. law.
As the decision of a federal district court, Bridgeman is not binding precedent on other federal or state courts, but it has nevertheless been highly influential as persuasive authority, and is widely followed by other federal courts.
Several federal courts have followed the ruling in Bridgeman. In Meshwerks v. Toyota, 528 F.3d 1258 (10th Cir. 2008), the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit favorably cited Bridgeman v. Corel, extending the reasoning in Bridgeman to cover 3D wireframe meshes of existing 3D objects. The appeals court wrote "[T]he law is becoming increasingly clear: one possesses no copyright interest in reproductions ... when these reproductions do nothing more than accurately convey the underlying image". Specifically following Bridgeman, the appeals court wrote, "In Bridgeman Art Library, the court examined whether color transparencies of public domain works of art were sufficiently original for copyright protection, ultimately holding that, as 'exact photographic copies of public domain works of art,' they were not." The Meshwerks opinion also revisited a 1959 case, Alva Studios, Inc. v. Winninger, 177 F. Supp. 265 (S.D.N.Y. 1959), in which the district court enforced a copyright claimed on a reproduction sculpture of Rodin's Hand of God. The Meshwerks decision, however, specifically overturned that case: "We are not convinced that the single case to which we are pointed where copyright was awarded for a “slavish copy” remains good law." The appeals court ruling cited and followed the United States Supreme Court decision in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service (1991), explicitly rejecting difficulty of labor or expense as a consideration in copyrightability. This line of reasoning has been followed in other cases, such as Eastern America Trio Products v. Tang Electronic Corp, 54 USPQ2d 1776, 1791 (S.D.N.Y. 2000), where it was ruled that "[t]here is a very broad scope for copyright in photographs, encompassing almost any photograph that reflects more than 'slavish copying'."
The Bridgeman case has caused great concern among some museums, many of which receive income from licensing photographic reproductions of objects and works in their collections. Some of them have argued, as above, that the case has limited precedential value, or that (even though it was a federal court case) it has no application outside of the state of New York.
Others who reject the judgment on the Bridgeman case have pointed to Schiffer Publishing v. Chronicle Books as providing a contrary decision. However, in Schiffer, the facts of the case differed. In particular, the plaintiff had not been making any attempt at full fidelity with the works being photographed, and thus the photographs comprised an element of originality. As stated in Schiffer, "[t]he tone and value of colors in the Schiffer photograph[s] differed from those of the actual fabric swatch", meaning that not only was fidelity not achieved, but in fact the photographs were visibly inaccurate representations of the works photographed. The presiding judge in the case, Judge Berle M. Schiller, cited Bridgeman and went to great lengths to demonstrate that the material facts of Schiffer differ from those of Bridgeman. Bielstein concludes from this that far from Schiffer contradicting Bridgeman, it actually reinforces it and builds upon it, confirming that an "interpretive dimension or spark of originality" over and above "slavish copying", conferred originality and copyrightability.
Relevance to U.K. law
As a U.S. court case, Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. is not binding upon U.K. courts. However, because it follows dicta in Interlego, and cites Justice Laddie, it serves to raise doubt in U.K. law as to the originality of photographs that exactly replicate other works of art. An additional problem with taking the case as precedent would be reconciling it with the decision in Walter v Lane, given that an analogy can be made between the skills exercised by a journalist in verbatim reporting of a speech and the skills exercised by a photographer in exactly reproducing a work of art. However, Antiquesportfolio.com v Rodney Fitch & Co. also held that a slavish copy, such as re-using a photographic negative, re-photographing a print, or re-creating the effect of an earlier photograph, would not constitute an original work. Similarly, Lord Oliver's dicta in Interlego held that the effort of copying, itself, does not constitute originality.
The significance of the case and the doubts that it raised prompted the private Museums Copyright Group in the U.K. to commission an in-depth report on the case and to seek the opinion of Jonathan Rayner James, Q.C., a barrister who specialized in U.K. copyright law and a co-author of Copinger and Skone James on copyright. Rayner James' opinion, as reported by the group in a press release, was:
[A]s a matter of principle, a photograph of an artistic work can qualify for copyright protection in English law, and that is irrespective of whether [...] the subject of the photographs is more obviously a three dimensional work, such as a sculpture, or is perceived as a two dimensional artistic work, such as a drawing or painting [...]
It is, similarly, arguable under U.K. law that the photography of such works, by dint of the lighting and other techniques involved in producing a photograph that renders the work to best photographic effect (possibly better than what would be visible to a person viewing the original painting on display in the relevant museum), would constitute originality, per Laddie, and not merely a "slavish copy".
However, the review of U.K. authorities in the second judgment of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. does highlight several points in U.K. law. For example, it draws attention to the fact that Graves' Case, dating as it does from 1867, no longer reflects the law of originality in the U.K., in light of later cases such as Interlego.
The Bridgeman Art Library itself stated in 2006 that it is "looking for a similar test case in the U.K. or Europe to fight which would strengthen [its] position".
In November 2015, the Intellectual Property Office issued a document offering a judgment similar to that of Bridgeman v. Corel, stating that:
according to the Court of Justice of the European Union which has effect in UK law, copyright can only subsist in subject matter that is original in the sense that it is the author’s own ‘intellectual creation’. Given this criteria, it seems unlikely that what is merely a retouched, digitised image of an older work can be considered as ‘original’. This is because there will generally be minimal scope for a creator to exercise free and creative choices if their aim is simply to make a faithful reproduction of an existing work.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Corel Professional Photos CD-ROM.|
- Copyright protection of photographs in Switzerland for the equivalent leading cases in Switzerland
- Fair use
- National Portrait Gallery and Wikimedia Foundation copyright dispute
- Itar-Tass Russian News Agency v. Russian Kurier, Inc. for a case where foreign law was applied in the US for determining the ownership of works
- Simon Stokes (2001). Art and copyright. Hart Publishing. pp. 103–104. ISBN 1-84113-225-X. ISBN 9781841132259.
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- Full text of the court's ruling
- Van Dale/Romme-arrest (Dutch) Comparable decision from the Netherlands
- Eastern America Trio Products v. Tang Electronic Corp