Every photo doesn’t automatically have the veneer of copyrightability. Dr. Mitchell A. Pohl is a cosmetic dentist who is very proud of his work. He posted before and after pictures of one of his patients on his website. The photos showed the patient’s unfortunate ‘before’ smile (teeth, lips and small area around the mouth) and her ‘after’ beautiful healthy smile. Dr. Pohl registered the photos with the US Copyright Office. Then Dr. Pohl found seven websites that used his photos. He sued the alleged infringer, MH SubI, LLC d/b/a Offcite, for copyright infringement. While Dr. Pohl obviously does fantastic work, his photos didn’t bridge the gap into copyrightable subject matter. The District Court for the Northern District of Florida performed the judicial version of a root canal and granted Offcite’s motion for summary judgment. The court held that Dr. Phol’s self-serving affidavit was as convincing as “plaque on a molar” and no reasonable jury could find that the photos were creative enough for copyright protection. The court later performed another extraction by denying Dr. Pohl’s motion to reconsider.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. A work has to meet a minimum standard of creativity to be copyrighted. As the court noted in this case, “Meeting the standard for creativity is not like pulling teeth”. Dr. Pohl’s photos didn’t meet that minimum standard. The court noted that Dr. Pohl couldn’t identify any creative elements in the photos such as the type of camera used, decisions regarding the pose of the patient, lighting decisions, etc. Perhaps if Dr. Pohl could have described some creative decisions in taking the photos, the outcome would have been different.
A shout out to my friend, Matthew Scott Nelles, one of the fine attorneys at Berger Singerman LLP in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, who represented Offcite in this case.