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September 15, 2022

Implied Copyright License to Photographs of Artist Formerly Known as Prince

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The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld a ruling that a marketer had an implied copyright license to distribute marketing materials containing digital copies of photographs of the late musical artist Prince. Beaulieu v. Stockwell, Case No. 21-3833 (8th Cir. Aug. 30, 2022) (Gruender, Benton, Grasz, JJ.)

Allen Beaulieu was Prince's personal photographer for five years, taking thousands of photos during multiple world tours. Beaulieu registered a copyright for these photos in 1984. In 2014, Beaulieu decided to publish a book of his photos. He hired (and entered into contracts with) Thomas Crouse to write and publish the book and Clint Stockwell to assist in scanning and storing digital copies of the photos. There was significant interest in the book after Prince's death in 2016. In May 2016, Beaulieu gave Stockwell an unknown number of uncatalogued photos to be digitized. At about the same time, Stockwell sent a press packet containing a digital photo slideshow and press release to potential investors, including Charles Sanvik.

The collaboration with Stockwell and the others eventually fell apart, and Beaulieu demanded his photos back. Beaulieu's lawyer retrieved some of the photos from Stockwell's home, but Beaulieu did not make an inventory of the photos that were returned. Beaulieu sued Stockwell, Crouse and Sanvik for copyright infringement (among various other property torts). The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims and found that Stockwell had an implied license to create and distribute the press release containing Beaulieu's photos. Beaulieu appealed.

Addressing Beaulieu's copyright claim, the Eighth Circuit focused on the district court's finding of an implied license. An implied license is an affirmative defense to a copyright infringement claim. The Court explained that a nonexclusive implied license may be found where a person requests the creation of a work, the creator makes the particular work and delivers it to the person who requested it, and the licensor intends that the licensee-requestor copy and distribute the work. The Court also explained that such an implied license could be implied from conduct. The Court recounted the details of the contract between Beaulieu and Stockwell, which included provisions permitting the use of the digital photos for "promotional and marketing" purposes. The Court also noted that Beaulieu was informed of the marketing plans and was sent drafts of the marketing emails, including the digital photo slideshow, to which Beaulieu did not object. The Court found that Beaulieu's receipt of these materials, along with his continuing interactions with the collaborators thereafter, implied his approval of the marketing plan and demonstrated an implied license to the photographs.

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