The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has upheld a ruling that a merchant had an implied copyright license to distribute marketing materials containing digital copies of photographs by the late musical artist Prince. Beaulieu v. StockwellCase No. 21-3833 (8th Cir. Aug. 30, 2022) (Gruender, bent overGrasz, JJ.)

Allen Beaulieu was Prince’s personal photographer for five years, taking thousands of photos on multiple world tours. Beaulieu filed a copyright for these photos in 1984. In 2014, Beaulieu decided to publish a book of his photos. He hired (and contracted with) Thomas Crouse to write and publish the book and Clint Stockwell to help scan and store 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 scan. Around the same time, Stockwell sent out a press kit containing a slideshow of digital photos and a press release to potential investors, including Charles Sanvik.

The collaboration with Stockwell and the others eventually fell apart and Beaulieu demanded the return of his photos. Beaulieu’s attorney recovered 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 claim of copyright infringement. The Court explained that an implied non-exclusive license can exist 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 licensee intends that the licensee will copy and distribute the work. The Court also explained that such an implied license could arise from conduct. The Court recalled the details of the contract between Beaulieu and Stockwell, which included provisions allowing the use of digital photos for “promotional and marketing” purposes. The Court also noted that Beaulieu was told of the marketing plans and received drafts of the marketing emails, including the digital photo slideshow, which Beaulieu did not object to. The Court found that Beaulieu’s receipt of these documents, as well as his continued interactions with collaborators thereafter, implied his approval of the marketing plan and demonstrated an implied license to the photographs.

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