On January 12, 2018, photographer Christopher Sadowski sued IGN Entertainment, Inc. (“IGN”) for copyright infringement. The copyright in question: a photograph of the Pokémon GO homepage on Sadowski’s cell phone, similar to (but not the same as!) the stock photo shown below.
Sadowski licensed his photograph to the New York Post for a July 12, 2016, article regarding a man who got caught cheating on his girlfriend through Pokémon GO. It appears that IGN may have infringed Sadowski’s copyright by using the image when discussing the New York Post article in an IGN Hungary article titled “6 Crazy Pokémon GO Stories.” The image is absent from IGN’s U.S. version of the article.
However, Sadowski’s case may have an Achilles’ heel. Because Niantic and Nintendo have intellectual property rights in their game (including the login screen), Sadowski’s photograph is arguably a derivative work, and his copyright would thereby extend only to the “material contributed by the author of such work, as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work.” That’s not likely to be much. Moreover, whatever minimal copyright Sadowski has in his photo “does not imply any exclusive right in the preexisting material.” Lastly, protection for a derivative work using someone else’s material in which copyright subsists does not extend to any part of the work in which such material has been used unlawfully (e.g., without the appropriate license). In other words, there’s a fair argument that Sadowski’s photograph rights are only as good as Nintendo and/or Niantic will allow them to be.
Sadowski’s case against IGN is a cautionary tale for Internet content creators. While many questions about the applicability of fair use on the Internet exist, it remains a bad idea to use images from other websites–even news websites–without appropriate permission. Indeed, a royalty free version of the exact same photo exists and could have saved IGN a lot of grief.