Liz Ordoñez-Dawes is a fellow photographer and a friend of mine. She's based in South Florida so technically, she's my competition. But, since both of us share an open attitude towards the photo community, we have each benefited by sharing ideas as well as the frustrations of our industry. I met Liz over 20 years ago when we both attended the same accounting class at our very non-Ivy League university.
Hopefully Liz remembered something from that class because she just won a copyright infringement case with an award of over $12 million.
The case involves a residential real estate developer who hired Liz to shoot his properties a few years ago. Liz granted his firm an unlimited, non-transferable license to use the images to promote his building company, excluding usage by third parties. (This happens to be my standard license as well.)
When the builder ignored the license and the additional usage was discovered, the builder refused to acknowledge Liz and instead, let the problem snowball into a Federal lawsuit. The defendant then let said snowball grow by refusing to show up for trial (which the judge didn't really appreciate) so the entire amount of the suit was awarded to Liz. Apparently the judgment will stick, even if the defendant files for bankruptcy.
To some, this large amount of money might seem disproportionate to the value of a few house photos. But, our copyright laws award large statutory damages of $150,000 for each work willfully infringed. So, a few stolen photos can cost a few million bucks if the infringer is aware of the copyright but chooses to ignore it, as in this case.
I've had a few of my own infringement cases over the past 10 years and even when I was awarded a judgment, I was never "made whole" again after the battle. But in each case, I was able to make enough of an impression on the defendant that would certainly cause him to think twice about stealing my work again. I also learned some important lessons:
Our legal system is not based on truth. Seemingly good people will certainly lie in order to suppress the truth and when confronted with hard evidence, these liars will change their story in order to minimize the damage they've done to themselves by offering a settlement that should have been offered on Day One. When it's all said and done, the defendant will always see the plaintiff as the bad guy.
Nevertheless, I congratulate Liz on her victory and hope the news deters people from stealing property for commercial gain. With today's anti-copyright culture, it will certainly remain an uphill battle.