Novel legal theories mingle in BuzzFeed photo suit


Idaho photographer Kai Eiselein is suing BuzzFeed in U.S. District Court, claiming the site should pay not only for infringing his copyright when it ran his image but also for all the sites that subsequently posted it.

"Since BuzzFeed was the original poster of this set of images and provided them for distribution; the defendant is unequivocally responsible both directly and indirectly for all subsequent infringements," Eiselein's complaint reads.

That's an admirably avant-garde legal theory, an area of scholarship in which BuzzFeed is already a thought leader: BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti has argued the site's lists constitute a transformative use of others' photos, and thus fall under fair use. Jeff John Roberts writes that it's unlikely Eiselein's “contributory infringement” can "succeed on a legal basis — if he does, the case would throw a large chill over the sharing culture that has become a fixture of the social web."

But as a copyright attorney told me earlier this year, "the common etiquette of the Internet is not reflected in the law." In the Eiselein matter, that inconvenience may for once be to BuzzFeed's advantage.

More on BuzzFeed and photos: BuzzFeed lawsuit over celeb snaps raises copyright questions (GigaOM) | If putting photos together in a top 10 list is fair use, what isn’t? (Poynter) | How To Make a Viral Hit in Four Easy Steps (Slate)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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