The $130,000 judgement against TVX
Texas porn peddler Robert Burge is ruing the day he ripped off a teenage English girl by stealing her self-portrait and using it to market a sexually explicit movie. Last week Lara Jade Coton was awarded almost $130,000 damages against Burge and his company TVX after a Florida court found that Coton – who generally goes by her professional name of Lara Jade – had suffered personal and professional humiliation, harm to her career and damage to her physical health as a result of his actions.

Tampa attorney Richard A. Harrison, who represented Lara Jade, said afterwards that the court decision sends a strong message to those who help themselves to the creative work of others without permission or compensation. “Be prepared to get sued and be prepared to lose. Copyright infringement can be an expensive proposition.”

Three years ago Lara Jade, then a 17-year-old photography student and rising star on flickr, discovered that a self-portrait taken when she was 14 and hosted at DeviantArt was being used as cover art for the film Body Magic [“Hustler’s Highest Rated”]. When she wrote to TVX Burge tried to claim [you may want to skip forward if you’ve heard this one before] that it was all the fault of the designer. Then he turned on that famous – and illiterate – southern charm:

“I’M SURE BY THE END OF THE MONTH YOUR FACE WILL BE HISTORY. WE HAVE STOPPED SELLING THE DVD UNTIL COVER IS REPLACED. WE HAVE FURTHER CHECKED OUT YOUR NAME AND ITS NOT LIKE IT’S A HOUSE WHOLE NAME. ACTUALLY, REMOVING YOUR IMAGE WILL HELP IMPROVE THE SELL OF THE DVD.. SO FAR IT BOMBED. THEY ARE REMAKING THE COVER AS WE SPEAK SO YOUR TEN SECONDS OF FAME WILL SOON COME TO AN END.”

But TVX didn’t just save the schmooze for their emails to Lara Jade: whenever they found the story reported they also had a go at smearing her in public. At EPUK the pseudonymous TVX Fan responded to the story:

“What most people don’t realize is that Lara Jade is not the sweet virgin she has advertised herself as in this hillarious event. No one has any clue if Lara Jade is in fact a real person, as she refuses to divulge any identification to anyone..we smell a scam.”

Talk about getting it wrong. The smutsters probably reckoned the chances of being pursued through the courts by an allegedly non-existent foreign teenager were infinitesimally small. And it’s true that most photographers, never mind most 17 year olds, would have given up long ago. But not Lara Jade: instead, she got herself a lawyer.

Whoops! Who put THAT there?
At first it looked like the case would go nowhere. Attempting to prove that TVX were still using the image Harrison bought several copies of the DVD; however when they arrived he found that TVX had indeed changed the cover art. But content is king, and somebody at TVX boobed: when the lawyer opened one of the DVD cases the offending disc, complete with Lara Jade’s stolen image, flopped out. [Memo to really stupid heist merchants: when covering your tracks try to remember to remove all the evidence].

And so in July, after three years, and now an established professional photographer complete with agent and growing roster of clients, Lara Jade travelled to Florida and finally got her day in court.

Both the verdict and the award are interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing there had been predictions that the suit would fail on technical grounds, probably jurisdictional. A foreign citizen suing a Texas company in a Florida court provided too many potential loopholes for Burge to wriggle out through, ran this thinking.

For another there was the matter of US copyright law, which provides for punitive damages of up to $150,000 per infringement, but only if the image is registered with the US Copyright Office. Lara Jade’s self-portrait wasn’t registered, and US courts are reluctant to award substantial damages in such cases. In other words even if she won there was the distinct possibility that no meaningful damages would be awarded.

But come judgement none of that mattered. Describing the behaviour of Burge and TVX as “morally wrong and tortious”, Judge Thomas G. Wilson awarded $129,173.20 in damages for copyright infringement, misappropriation of her image and damages to her reputation. Wilson also charged that the harm suffered was compounded by Burge’s “offensive and belittling” treatment of her after the misuse of her photograph was discovered.

Doubtless some will argue that had the image been registered the damages could have been higher; but while that may be true it misses the point. The case was about reputation, not money, and both the verdict and the award show that in the right circumstances it’s possible for a determined photographer to successfully sue an infringer in the US – even if the photographer is foreign and the image unregistered.

As Lara Jade writes on her flickr stream and blog:

“As photographers using the internet, we often get people stealing our work…I hoped that fighting this case would give inspiration to many other young (and older!) photographer’s out there that copyright IS an issue. You can’t just go and steal an image that doesn’t belong to you and use it for commercial gain – if you’re going to steal images online then people WILL find out and they CAN sue you!”

TVX previously described the case as “hillarious” [sic]. So who’s laughing now?

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5 Responses to “Brit Photographer Screws Texas Pornographer”

  1. This is a tremendously important judgement. US infringers are rife and the belief that only it was only practical to follow up infringements if the images had been registered with the US Copyright Office has effectively barred non US photographers from pursuing freeloaders based in the USA.

    I suppose there could still be an appeal but if the judgement holds the USA will no longer be quite so free to rip off our work with impunity.

  2. [...] can read more details on the Russian Photos blog, and also in a post made by the photographer on DeviantART when she discovered the abuse of [...]

  3. Jeremy admin says:

    I agree it’s an important judgement, but with one caveat. Since my post a breakdown of the damages has been made available at PDN, & by far the biggest sum is for defamation by associating Lara Jade with the porn biz. The infringement itself only garnered a bit over $4K, presumably because the image wasn’t registered. If it had been I imagine the award would have been much higher, since the unexpected appearance of the DVD itself – as opposed to the packaging – proved that TVX were continuing to use the image after they claimed they’d stopped.

    The really big copyright infringement case kicks off this Friday in NY 10:30am: Morel vs AFP. Book your seat early!

  4. Greenmantle Greenmantle says:

    Having known Lara for many years I certainly enjoyed hearing of this legal result. I’m crossing my fingers she’s as savvy with the windfall from the law suit as she has been with her career in general. That’s a very talented young shooter certainly going places.

  5. [...] publications looting Chirrup &#1072nd Flickr? the Internet barely notices. Porn baron rips off schoolgirl? the Internet &#1112&#965&#1109t shrugs. News agency steals photos th&#1077n [...]

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