“All my friends are photographers” is not something you typically hear from a lawyer. But Long Island-based Richard Leibowitz is not your average counsel. In the past 2 ½ years, his firm has filed over 600 federal lawsuits on behalf of photographers whose work has been stolen, making him the most litigious copyright lawyer “by far.”
The above quotes come from a Slate profile published yesterday on Mr. Leibowitz, whose work is described as “the salvation of the underpaid photographer.” But while Leibowitz appears to have morality on his side, his tactics have drawn the ire of many, earning him the title of a “patent troll,” and a directive from a judge to attend ethics classes. Meanwhile, defenders say the lawyer is simply going to such extremes because it’s the only way left to disrupt a system in which photographers “are treated like shit.”
In a typical copyright claim, the photographer or their representative will reach out to a defendant, alerting them that they have stolen their work and will need to reimburse the artist, as well as remove the offending image. Because most offenses are the result of what Slate calls “this screenshot, drag-and-drop…world,” rather than malicious intent, both sides usually seek to settle outside of court, amicably. “For the most part,” one attorney said, “these [copyright violations] are mistakes.”
Instead, Leibowitz goes right for the jugular—sending a defendant’s lawyers a demand for $30,000 worth of compensation lest his copyright suit, already filed, go forth. By filing suit immediately, and offering to settle afterwards, Leibowitz puts companies in a tricky position: either pay the thousands of dollars to hire lawyers to defend the potentially frivolous case, or settle it for slightly less than what this would cost. Usually they choose the latter.
“That argument has a lot of force,” another attorney told Slate, “[and] he’s got that figured out.”
What many—particularly in courts and editorial rooms— have taken issue with is Leibowitz’s tactic of making an identical demand, usually in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, “even if the [stolen] photograph would have licensed for $100 or less.” It is this “chronic overvaluation”—along with allegations that Leibowitz fails to follow through on discovery obligations, and neglects the concept of fair use—that has led some to declare him a “troll.”
But for all the talk of Leibowitz’s “unreasonable and vexatious conduct,” the young lawyer’s actions are firmly guided by a sense of justice stemming from his own personal experience. An editorial contributor to his undergrad student magazine, Leibowitz learned the photographic ropes by interning with family friend and photographer Bruce Cotler as a teenager. “I got to learn a lot of things traveling with [Cotler]”, he said, including “the life of being a photographer.”
So after hearing numerous tales from Bruce and his fellow photogs in the NYPPA about having their work stolen, Leibowitz, now with a law degree, figured he had found a way to repay those who had taught him so much. “The photographers that took me under their wing when I was young,” he said, “I want to give back to them….[by] really helping them with the problem of copyright infringement.”
At the end of the day, it appears unclear what effects Leibowitz’s actions will have on the industry as a whole; his litigation rate is already slowing. But the outsize nature of his tale is symbolic of an industry—and a group of professionals—with nowhere else to turn. The status quo, as it has been practiced, has done them no good—they are forced to look to the new and unchecked methods that Leibowitz and other lawsuit-happy lawyers can offer.
If it’s hard for some to grapple with the way Leibowitz is upending the enforcement of copyright law, it should be even harder still to grapple with the conditions facing the longtime press photographers on whose behalf he is battling. “There are 55 year-old-photographers that are living with their 80-year-old parents,” photographer Steve Sands told Slate. “None of us are employed”.
For the full article, check out Slate.