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NFL Photos Royalty Dispute Revived by 2nd Circuit

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 13, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court revived a copyright suit by photographers who claim the National Football League used their images without paying royalties.

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial judge who dismissed their complaint early in the case. The appeals court said the plaintiffs alleged enough to proceed to trial.

It's been a long time coming for the freelance photographers, who filed Spinelli v. National Football League five years ago. It was even longer for the photographs; many were taken nearly a decade ago.

"The NFL Knew It"

The plaintiffs alleged the NFL cut them out of royalties on pictures used for promotional materials, online stores, websites and other NFL events. They said the copyright violations were "rampant" and "willful," and that an agreement with the Associated Press gave the NFL no right to use their images.

The Second Circuit said their allegations "plausibly support an inference that before the 2012 AP-NFL agreement was signed, AP had not granted the NFL a complimentary license to plaintiffs' works, and the NFL knew it." Judge Gerard Lynch wrote the opinion, and expressed concern that the alleged wrongdoing was ongoing.

"The NFL allegedly continues to use Plaintiffs' photographs to this day without paying royalties," he wrote.

The plaintiffs also accused the Associated Press and others of profiting from their images. Lynch rejected the defendants' argument that the AP gave the NFL an implied license to infringe on the photographers' copyrights.

No Implied License

Kevin McCulloch, who represents the plaintiffs, said the Second Circuit vindicated their claims.

"My clients are very pleased with this ruling as it vindicates in virtually every respect our position on the central copyright claims at the heart of this case," he told Courthouse News.

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