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Photographer forced to un-publish pictures

INDUSTRIAL photographer Stephen Mallon was engaged to document the salvage of the plane that landed on the Hudson River in New York, US, back on 15 January. He was engaged by Weeks Marine, the company that lifted the plane from the water.

Those who have seen the pictures, the Online Photographer blog reports, say he did a wonderful job. Pulitzer-Prizewinning photo editor Stella Kramer called his pictures "an incredible, beautiful document of the recovery".

Stephen put some pictures up on his website, But you can't see them there now.

First, about a week after the pictures went up, the US National Transportation Safety Board - the accident investigator - asked him to take them off. He did. Two weeks later the NTSB cleared them. Correspondence continued about precisely which pictures were cleared for the public to see.

Then J. Supor & Son, owners of Weeks Marine, wrote to assert that they were his client. Strange.

Then troubled insurance company AIG passed Stephen a lawyers' letter demanding that he unpublish his pictures.

And... let's get this straight, if we can. What are the roles of AIG and those lawyers here? US Airways is the owner of the plane that failed to complete Flight 1549. And Stephen tells the Freelance: "US airways hired the law firm and AIG. AIG hired Supor & Son; Supor hired Weeks Marine, Weeks hired me. So there are the degrees of separation in the claim that I am a sub-sub-sub-contractor of theirs."

Under US copyright law, photographers' and other authors' clients can ask them to sign a "Work for Hire" agreement - which means that the client is legally regarded as the author of the work. A "Work for Hire" agreement means that a freelance, who by default owns their own work, is treated as employees are under US law. (Note: this happens only in US law.)

But Stephen had signed no such agreement.

Ironically, Stephen has an email from US Airways, thanking him for shooting the recovery of the plane - and asking for copies of his pictures, for their archive. Other photographers will not be surprised to hear that they offered no fee for this.

The Freelance is frankly puzzled over what legal case AIG could make. But it'd cost Stephen a small fortune to challenge them, so for the moment you can't see his pictures, and he can't sell licences to use them either.

Last modified: 27 Mar 2009 - © 2009 contributors
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