Hawaii has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Capturing a breath-taking view of one really requires being in the right place at the right time. And no one has been in the right place at the right time more than Vincent Tylor (Note: Vincent Khoury Tylor is the father of Vincent Scott Tylor- both are Hawaiian Photographers) (We’ll call them collectively “VT”). VT has made a career of taking and selling his scenic photographs of Hawaiian beaches through his own websites like HawaiianPhotos.net and HawaiianPictures.com. But the Internet has produced a secondary career for VT who – copyright infringement litigator. The ability to search for and locate digital imagery through the Internet has opened up a cottage industry for VT where he sends out cease and desist letters with large demands against alleged infringers and on occasion he then files suit against them in his home state of Hawaii. I have recently become involved in two such lawsuits filed in Hawaii against folks who allegedly used VT’s images on their websites. I will not discuss their individual cases here of course, but I will share what I have learned from my involvement in them.
What VT Does Right
Let me start by saying what I feel VT does right.
(1) He registers the images with the Copyright Office. He also does so in an organized fashion that makes it relatively easy to find the registration for the particular image. Copyright in an image attaches the minute the photographer snaps the picture and there is no legal requirement that you register the image in order to obtain the copyright in the image. Generally speaking, you took it, you got it. But registering the images allows VT to easily prove that he is the owner of the image and allows him to seek statutory damages and legal fees should he win a lawsuit over the use of the image.
(2) On his sites, he watermarks the images so that it is further easy to prove ownership and if someone removes the watermark (or content management information as it is legally known) that creates a second claim or cause of action against that person.
(3) He hired an experienced well-known lawyer in Hawaii – J. Stephen Street – to process his claims. His lawyer knows his way around a courthouse and knows copyright law. Too often, folks on both sides of an infringement suit don’t hire someone well-versed in copyright law or in litigation. They call the lawyer who set up their company or helped them incorporate or did their business lease. You need a lawyer who knows intellectual property law litigation in general and copyright law specifically. I have spoken and dealt with Street and he is professional and knowledgeable. While I don’t see eye-to-eye with him on a lot of things, our conversations have been courteous and productive. I can’t always say that about the lawyers that handle these digital image copyright infringement matters.
(4) VT takes beautiful and professional pictures of Hawaii.
What VT Does Wrong
(a) Asking too much. VT’s demands both in his letters and through his litigation ask for damage amounts that I believe exceed what he would recover in a court of law. I have discussed this with Mr. Street and we have agreed to disagree on this issue. I recently represented a photographer whose business is similar to VT except his island of choice is Granada. He found a travel agency that was using his images without license. He hired me to send a cease and desist letter. Luckily, the target company hired qualified IP counsel and we settled the case quickly for a fair amount. We didn’t try to scare anyone into overpaying for the images. Asking for a rational amount based upon the use made of the image and the guilt of the party (was it intentional, where did they get the image from, did they re-sell the image etc) is the best way to a quick resolution
(b) Suing in Hawaii. Without getting into too much legalese, before you can file suit in a certain State, you have to show that the defendant has sufficient “minimum contacts” with the State so as to allow them to be hauled into court in that State. In the two cases I am handling, I feel the connection to Hawaii is thin. Of course, Mr. Street would disagree with me. But to even argue that, they then have to get Hawaiian counsel and fight the case until they can convince a court that they are right. The time zone difference also adds to the difficulty in dealing with the case. This added expense and pressure is unfair if the party really has no ties to Hawaii. We’ll see if the court agrees with me or Street.
Added Note of Caution about “Free Wallpaper and Free Images” Sites:
If you do a reverse image search on Google for just about any VT image, you will find it on dozens and dozens of websites propounding to provide “free images” or “free wallpaper shots.” This is where many VT’s targets get their images from. People believe that when a site says something is “Free” its “Free.” But the site does not own the images and has no legal right to sell them. Incidentally, using an image from a free wallpaper site as a banner for your website which advertise your business is not “wallpaper.” For a time, on ELI and in other places, there was speculation that VT was “seeding” his images onto these sites in order to entrap or ensnare folks into using them and to then make them targets of later suits. Having been involved in this issue for some years now, I can state that no proof of any such seeding has ever been found. Street also demonstrated to me the many attempts VT has made over the years in trying to get “Free Wallpaper” and “Free Images” sites to take down VT’s work. It’s like playing “Whack-A-Mole” – you knock one down another pops up instantly.
What’s All This Mean?
It means that if you intend to use an image of a Hawaiian beach, chances are its VTs unless you go old school. It means that you cannot assume that just because an image is labeled as “free” that you can use it without a problem. It means that chances are if you want to use a picture of a Hawaiian beach you will have to pay for it now or later. Or else you could find yourself saying “Aloha” to a judge in the Federal Court for the District of Hawaii.