Photojournalism Ethics in the Bin Laden Story

4 05 2011

Great piece on about ethical issues related to photography this week as the bin Laden story evolves. Big decisions about gruesome images and staged photo ops.

Read about it here:


A Law Favoring Photographers

21 04 2011

I have been following an exciting bill in the Connecticut legislature that for explicitly takes steps to protect photographers rights to make pictures.

In the face of recent efforts by other states to arrest photographers and charge them with violating wiretapping laws Connecticut’s S.B. No. 1206 is refreshing.

Contrary to some reports, the bill does not give photographers the right to take pictures in public- that right already exists. What the bill does is give photographers a right to sue police who interfere with their right to photograph. In many cases, you can only bring a lawsuit if the suit is authorized. A violation of a civil right is generally an appropriate grounds for suit, and in fact many photographers across the country have received settlements from police departments after being arrested unjustly. However, having an explicit cause of action will make it easier for photographers to bring suit.

In my opinion, it is not the possibility of a lawsuit that would make this bill favorable. Sure it is nice to get something for your trouble. But what matters here is the pressure that this would put on police departments to make sure that their officers respect the First Amendment and leave photographers alone.

The bill is short enough that I can post the entire version here:

Any peace officer, as defined in section 53a-3 of the general statutes, who interferes with a person taking a photographic or digital still or video image of such peace officer or another peace officer acting in the performance of such officer’s duties shall be liable to such person in an action at law, suit in equity or other proper proceeding for redress, provided such person, while taking such image, did not obstruct or hinder any peace officer in the performance of such officer’s duties.

According to the Hartford Courant an amendment has been added that exempts officers “if the officer had a reasonable belief it would interfere with an investigation, violate the privacy of a victim or impact the public’s safety.” I’m hoping to get a copy of the amended text- it is not currently posted on the General Assembly website. An amendment like this could take away the teeth of the law or even make things worse if poorly written.

The State of the Union Live Web Feed- Are you listening Seventh Circuit?

25 01 2011

The New York Times is broadcasting the State of the Union on the front page of its website as I write this. It is a lovely thing to watch, and it is a clear example of how newspapers have changed- in what they can do and how they can deliver the news.

If the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) was in charge of the State of the Union, the New York Times would not be web-casting the State of the Union, in it’s entirety. Instead they would be limited to two minutes worth of highlight footage, with no live blogging allowed. Sound absurd? That is exactly what WIAA claims it can do with its high school championship games. A federal judge agreed with them and the case is now under appeal. WIAA is a state actor, and if you say that WIAA can restrict coverage of its events, where is the line drawn?

Can the Media be Restricted from Broadcasting High School Athletic Events in their entirety: Oral Arguments in the Seventh Circuit.

16 01 2011

There were oral arguments on Friday in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the WIAA v. Gannett case. You may remember this case originated a couple of years ago when a Wisconsin newspaper webcast several high school football tournaments against the wishes of the tournament organizers, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. The WIAA sued, initially in state court, seeking a declaration that it had broad rights to own the descriptions and depictions of the games. The case was moved to federal court and the complaint was changed to involve fewer claims.

Currently the primary issue involves whether or not the WIAA can contract with a private company to exclusively license the rights to broadcast the entire game (beyond just highlights). WIAA is a “state actor” which means that in effect, they are like the government, and they cannot restrict speech any more than a city or state government could.

A panel of three judges began by peppering the newspaper’s attorney, Robert Dreps, with hypothetical questions about whether or not a school could restrict coverage related to school plays, or operas, which have copyright protections. Dreps explained how previous courts have ruled that there are no copyright protections in athletic competitions. The judges also raised questions about whether or not the case should ever have been moved to federal court. At one point one of the judges compared the broadcast of the games to a broadcast of the oral arguments themselves. In addition, the issue of whether a ruling in favor of the newspapers would affect broadcast agreements in college basketball games was raised.

These issues are not simple, and because of that, the debate is fascinating. If you have time, it lasts less than an hour. At play are cross-section of many issues, including First Amendment, copyright, and internet law. News organizations all over the country should be paying attention to this case and its outcome.

A recording of the oral arguments can be heard here and there is an article about the original case here.

(editor’s note: this is a cross-post with my NPPA Advocacy blog)

The copyright of “Happy Birthday”

7 05 2009
210 POSH awc

Happy Birthday Ladies! Did you get a performance license for that song?

Did you know that someone claims ownership to the copyright to the song “Happy Birthday to You”?

It was referenced in the dissent of a well-known copyright case, Eldred v. Ashcroft.

In honor of the end of law school finals, here is some light summer reading for you.

A legal scholar did some digging and found out some interesting facts. Digging deeply into the authorship of the lyrics and the melody, technical legal issues, evidentiary issues and policy issues, the author provides a logical look at the facts of a song whose music was written in 1893, but was combined with lyrics and published in 1935.

So what is the answer- as in many legal issues, it’s complicated. I won’t spoil the ending for you, you can read the paper yourself. Reading like a soap opera for copyright nerds like me, it is not only a very interesting tale, but a great look at the history of copyright law.

Ultimately, until tested in court, we won’t have a definitive answer, and no one seems likely to challenge it (the article addresses why). In the mean time, the song earns over $2 million in licensing revenue every year.

Find the article at this link.

Multimedia in the Courtroom

13 11 2008

The news industry knows the impact of multimedia presentations. So do prosecutors and district attorneys.

One controversy brewing in the legal industry is the use of multimedia presentations during the penalty phase of a trial. Typically, in a murder case, those who knew the victim can talk about that person, so that the jury gets a sense of the loss to society before they decide the penalty. Often, they will also show pictures and in some cases, a slide show or multimedia presentation.

Such was the case in Kelly v. California. Douglas Kelly was convicted of killing a 19-year-old woman, Sara Weir. During the penalty phase, a 20-minute multimedia presentation was played, showing pictures and video of the victim throughout her life, set to music by Enya, with her mother’s voice narrating. The defendant got the death penalty. His attorneys appealed, claiming that the videotape was unduly emotional.

Sometimes such multimedia presentations as evidence is not permitted, and the California Supreme Court mentioned cases where they have excluded such presentations. Those exclusions were because the videotapes were irrelevant, and in one case involved a paid actor.

picture-2But the videotape in Kelly was ruled to be acceptable by the California Supreme Court. Even though the soft music was probably overboard, the California Supreme Court ruled that in light of the trial as a whole, it was not enough to have a significant impact on the jury as a whole.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case on further appeal. But two of the nine justices wrote strong statements urging that the high court should have granted review (it takes four justices to agree for the court to accept a petition).

Justice Stevens said, “when victim impact evidence is enhanced with music, photographs, or video footage, the risk of unfair prejudice quickly becomes overwhelming.”

He added that “their primary, if not sole, effect was to rouse jurors’ sympathy for the victims and increase jurors’ antipathy for the capital defendants”

Justice Breyer, who called the presentation tasteful and “above all, moving,” said, “any decision to impose the death sentence must be… based on reason rather than caprice or emotion,” thought that the court should have reviewed the case to help lower courts create better guidelines.

Want to decide for yourself? The U.S. Supreme Court has posted the video:

My opinion… The circumstances of the crime were such that this presentation could have been done in a far more “overdone” manner. The mother never seemed to choke up and there was not a big build up at the end that would really knock you out. Yeah, it’s emotional, but I can’t imagine how the story of a woman who was murdered, told by her mother, could be presented in a way that is not emotional.

I have covered many a murder trial, and they all make you want to go home and hug the people you love. They make you cry. Period.

Videographer Detained by Police

9 11 2008

I thought this was worth watching. It is a terrible example of the abuse the media often faces simply while doing their jobs. In this instance, it was a school district chief. Thank goodness no charges were filed, but that doesn’t change the fact that another photographer has been hassled for doing something expressly protected by the Constitution.

(caution: expletives)