Ninth Circuit Holds Stock Photography Collection Registration Protects Individual Images, Defers to Longstanding Copyright Office Practice

By Amanda BringsImage

In Alaska Stock, LLC v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co., the Ninth Circuit recently weighed in on the much-contested issue of whether the copyright registration for a photograph collection protects the individual images within the collection. Adopting the approach of the Fourth and Fifth circuits, the court held that when a stock photography agency registers a collection of images and the agency has ownership rights in both the collection and the individual images, the registration covers both the collection as a whole and the individual images.

The case arose when Alaska Stock, a stock photography agency, filed a complaint against the major publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) alleging that HMH committed copyright infringement when it exceeded its license to use Alaska Stock’s images. HMH moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Alaska Stock did not have valid copyright registrations for the individual images under 17 U.S.C. § 409, and therefore could not bring suit under 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), which makes registration a precondition for an infringement action.

17 U.S.C. § 409, provides that “the application for copyright registration shall be made on a form prescribed by the Register of Copyrights and shall include,” among other things, “the name and nationality or domicile of the author or authors” and “the title of the work, together with any previous or alternative titles under which the work can be identified.” In granting HMH’s motion to dismiss, the district court held that the language of § 409 unambiguously requires a registrant of a collective work to list the authors and titles of all the individual works in the application in order to register the individual works along with the collective work.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s interpretation of § 409. Instead, the court found that the statute granted the Register of Copyrights the authority to establish a process for extending registration to individual images in a collection. Thus, the court showed great deference to the Copyright Office’s 30-year practice of permitting copyright registrations of collective works to cover underlying contributions, even when the individual contributors are not named in the registration form.

The Ninth Circuit noted that while a superficial reading of § 409 appears to be in tension with the Copyright Office practice, the statute and the practice can be reconciled. Alaska Stock, as the owner of both the compilation and the individual images, satisfied its requirement under § 409 by providing its name as the claimant on the application. Alaska Stock further satisfied the title requirement by providing the title of the collection, “Alaska Stock CD catalog 4,” and identifying the contents of the collection with the phrase, “CD catalog of stock photos.” The court held that § 409 requires disclosure of only the title of the collective work, not the individual titles of the preexisting works incorporated into the compilation.

Notably, the Ninth Circuit expressed that a ruling to the contrary would create an unjust result for photographers. “We are affecting the fortunes of people, many of whose fortunes are small . . . . The livelihoods of photographers and stock agencies have long been founded on their compliance with the Register’s reasonable interpretation of the statute. Their reliance upon a reasonable and longstanding administrative interpretation should be honored.” This Ninth Circuit decision empowers both photographers and stock agencies to bring suit against infringers of individual photographs within a registered collection.

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