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New York Times Settles Copyright Case Over Thumbnail War Photos

June 17, 2016, 7:03 PM UTC
War is Beautiful book cover
The cover of 'War is Beautiful.'
Courtesy of David Shields, Powerhouse

The New York Times Company this week quietly settled a legal dispute with a publisher over a book that uses images from the newspaper to argue that Times‘ photography glamorizes war.

The Times (NYT) filed a copyright lawsuit against the publisher, PowerHouse Books, earlier this year. Legal scholars immediately chided the Times as petulant, and described the case as a “hissy fit” since the images appeared to be a clear-cut example of fair use, a doctrine that lets people use copyrighted work without permission in certain situations.

Critics also suggested the Times’ copyright lawsuit was inappropriate for a news publisher since it could create a chilling effect on free expression.

The images at the center of the controversy are 64 thumbnail images of Times covers found in the endpapers of War is Beautiful, which serve as a decorative embellishment on the inside of the book. While the publisher had licensed larger images used on the cover and inside the book, it relied on fair use in the case of the thumbnail prints.

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The details of the settlement are not public, but a court filing shows the deal was dismissed with prejudice (meaning the parties can’t sue again later on), and without costs. U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan added, however, that either side may bring the case back to court within the next 30 days if they provide an explanation.

Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the New York Times, declined to comment on the settlement. Previously, Murphy challenged the idea that Times lawsuit chilled free expression, and stated the paper has a strong record defending fair use.

Daniel Powers, the CEO of Powerhouse House Books, could not immediately be reached.

The Times’ approach to copyright licensing also came under scrutiny earlier this month after two professors complained the paper had demanded $1,884 to use three quotations from Times articles in a book.

In response, they started a Kickstarter campaign to defray the cost and to “protest the Times’ and publishers’ lack of respect for Fair Use.” The campaign has so far raised $1,375 of its $2,000 goal.