Photographers, photo agencies, artists, and others who have contributed content to textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have filed more than 30 copyright infringement claims over the past five years in federal US courts; with more claims in the works, says attorney Chris Seidman of Colorado, whose firm has represented most of the plaintiffs and has so far won settlements for about 20 of them.
“The scheme that Houghton employed was to license for the lowest amount it thought it could get away with, and then print whatever it wanted,” Seidman says. One HMH executive said in a court deposition that the publisher ignored print run limits in its photo licenses as meaningless numbers.
“It’s a compelling story of corporate greed and malfeasance,” says Seidman. “This venerable publisher has lost it’s way and veered off on a bad path of cheating the people who contribute to its existence, without whose contributions it wouldn’t exist.”
In case after case, photographers and other content providers have alleged that they licensed their copyrighted works for print runs up to 40,000 copies, but the publisher then printed a million or more copies without notifying them or paying them additional compensation. “The cases allege an extremely widespread scope of this infringement practice,” Seidman says. “We have claims involving hundreds of [Houghton Mifflin] publications, and thousands of images.”
He adds that the publisher uses “a scorch-the-earth tactic. They use their legal team to defeat claims on procedural grounds, not on the merits.”
But in most cases so far, that strategy hasn’t worked for the publisher. Courts have generally rejected its motions for dismissal, effectively forcing the publisher to settle to avoid trial. (Seidman is prevented by non-disclosure agreements from saying how much money Houghton Mifflin has paid to settle some of its cases.)
We ourselves have been at the sore end of unruly publishers who have either avoided notifying us of increased print runs, publishing without our permission at all and for breaching our moral and copyright with unaccredited or completely unauthorised use. Whilst the best part of the industry have a professional practice deeply rooted in their corporate structure there are far too many instances like this taking place. Photographers have to arm themselves with a solid knowledge base in order to negotiate adequately and to regularly monitor a licences progress.