CBS Sues Self-Employed New York Photographer for Infringement, But He Sued Them First

“Gunsmoke” ran for 20 years on CBS, from 1955 to 1975. Footage from it is so common that reels of it are used as raw material in university film editing courses. Oh, and this image? We’re reporting the news, so it’s Fair Use.

This is another one of those “you just can’t make this stuff up” stories.

In the wake of their profoundly awkward law suit against the producers of Axanar for violating copyright on the popular Star Trek franchise (despite leaving dozens of other fan films alone, for decades on end), the media giant CBS Broadcasting is suing a New York photographer for posting a screenshot from the 1958 TV series Gunsmoke on social media. They want $150,000 for the screenshot. However, they’re not very likely to get their money, because he sued them first.

Jon Tannen found that the web site 247sports.com had used one of his photographs without paying him for it. This stuff happens routinely, with major media companies like CBS, Time Warner and others using copyrighted photos without the owners’ permission, being frequently unable initially to find the creators of the photographs and just settling with them without making a big deal out of it. It’s a cost of doing business, and it’s pretty much impossible to correctly identify the source for every photograph they might want to use. It’s largely a self-correcting situation, and acknowledged in the industry as “business as usual”. According to this article in TorrentFreak, hundreds of these settlements happened this year alone.

Anyway, Tannen sued CBS in February, but this time CBS legal department decided to fight dirty. A few days ago the photographer was hit with a rather unusual lawsuit. In a four-page complaint, CBS Broadcasting accuses him of posting a copyright-infringing image of the classic TV-show Gunsmoke on social media.

Gunsmoke ran on CBS from 1955 to 1975. Footage from it is so common that university film programs use it as raw material for beginning classes in film editing. CBS, though, called Tannen a hypocrite for posting the infringing CBS screenshots online (via Twitter, we think, but we can’t find the offending posts either. Presumably Tannen took them down).

“This copyright infringement action arises out of Defendant’s unauthorized use of Plaintiff’s valuable intellectual property. Tannen hypocritically engaged in this act of infringement while simultaneously bringing suit against Plaintiff’s sister company, CBS Interactive Inc., claiming it had violated his own copyright” says the CBS complaint.

CBS is claiming that the screenshots, from an episode of Gunsmoke that first ran in 1958 (!!) has somehow harmed them, but that it is unable to determine actual damages. Instead they’re asking for statutory damages, to the tune of that $150,000.

Klingons in Star Trek Discovery speak Klingon. A lot. But does CBS own a copyright on the language? Can anyone own a copyright on a language?

This amount is, by the way, the same value they used when trying to get infringement penalties from Alec Peters and his Axanar project. That law suit started to wander off into the weeds, though, when Peters et al. put up a fight instead of knuckling under, and CBS was put on the defensive with respect to proving they actually owned the copyrights to some of the things they were claiming damages for, including a somewhat dubious copyright on the Klingon language. In the end, CBS backed down and settled for slapping Axanar’s wrists and ordering them to change the format of their finished work. No money changed hands, and Axanar was perhaps justifiably chastised, but the resulting firestorm of controversy over CBS’ aggressive anti-consumer, anti-fan legal actions left a scar in Star Trek fandom that will take decades to heal over.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Tannen will have to pay that $150,000. CBS’s lawsuit is a clear retaliatory move through which the company hopes to lessen the potential damages for their own alleged infringement, and may actually get them fined by the judge for filing malicious legal action with the intent to bully Tennan into giving up his own lawsuit against them.

It’s entirely possible that the CBS legal department just is not tracking the damage they are doing to their own brand with lawsuits like this. It’s almost certainly true that their new show Star Trek Discovery would be much better received in social media if they were.

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CBS Sues Self-Employed New York Photographer for Infringement, But He Sued Them First
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