Apple lawsuit raises interesting legal issue about iPhone apps

Thu, Aug 27, 2009

Analysis, Legal, News

Early last week, it came to light that a National Geographic photographer named Louis Psihoyos is suing Apple for $2 million in damages because an iPhone app called “i.TV” uses one of Psihoyos’ pictures without permission.

The image in question is called “The Information Revolution, 500 Monitors” and shows a person sitting in a chair surrounded by hundreds of monitors.  The image itself was copyrighted in 2005, so there’s no issue of contention there.  What’s interesting, though, is that Psihoyos is suing Apple and not the actual developer of the i.TV app.

Psihoyos’ lawsuit alleges that Apple is not a “tacit participant in applications on its iPhone”and that it “functions as a partner, reviewing each application and removing those applications that do not conform to Apple’s standards.”

Those are valid points, but they don’t address the implied requirement that Apple must ensure all photos used on the iTunes App Store don’t run afoul of copyrighted material.  Apple revealed late last week that it receives over 8,500 new iPhone applications every week, a figure which would make it impossible to thoroughly review each app for copyrighted images and/or sounds.

We should point out that this isn’t the first time an iPhone app has been accused of using copyrighted material.  In previous instances, Apple was notified of the offending app by the copyright owner, and subsequently removed the app from the app store.  Most recently, a Nintendo DS emulator was removed from iTunes, though the infringement in that case was obviously much more overt.

Still, Psihoyos’ lawsuit raises an interesting question – To what extent is Apple liable for the content of iPhone apps?

While much of copyright law operates on a case to case basis, this particular case seems to fall in Apple’s favor.  Suing Apple for $2 million without first contacting the actual offending party, and without first notifying Apple of the infringement doesn’t work in Psihoyos’ favor at all.

We can only hope that this lawsuit isn’t a money grab, but merely a means to direct Apple’s attention to the matter as quickly as possible.  If it is a money grab, Psihoyos’ will most likely lose, and waste a lot of money on legal fees in the process.  That said, we’d be surprised if the offending pic or app isn’t removed sometime this week.


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6 Comments For This Post

  1. D9 Says:

    I’d also say the recent copyright infringement lawsuit against Apple is evidence enough for why Apple needs to have its App Store approval process. Even with such a review, they missed seeing this problem in i.TV. So opening the doors to any & every app would only exacerbate that issue…something no company can afford.

    It’s just makes good legal & financial sense for Apple to proceed as it does.


  2. seking Says:

    It’s a money grab. The APP Store is just that, a store. Like any other store Apple has standards for what products it will sell in its store but that in no way requires Apple to police the products it re-sells.

    Apple did not violate Copyright law because Apple does not claim to own the copyright to “i.TV” which is the offending product, not the APP Store.

    All retail giants will side with Apple, as Walmart, Target, Sears, Best Buy, and every other retailer would be liable for infringements by any product sold by them. It would make more sense to go after the culprit

  3. Brian 2 Says:

    D9: I’d say it’s the opposite. By insisting on being the sole distributor for iPhone apps, Apple is opening themselves up to these sorts of lawsuits. Nobody would be able to sue Apple if a random developer put a Mac app on their website with copyrighted images.

  4. Peter Says:

    Agreed, Brian. Apple can’t have it’s cake and eat it, too.

    That said, I tend to agree that this is a “money grab.” The contract with the developer clearly states that the developer is responsible for making certain that they can use all images in their application. And, no, just because the picture shows up on a web page doesn’t mean you have a license to use it in your app (ie, just because the picture is at the top of this article doesn’t mean I can download it and use it in my App). Apple booted a developer just a few weeks ago who was writing Apps that scraped web pages for celebrity photos, comic strips, etc. and showed them on the iPhone.

    So even if Apple were to “lose,” they’d just turn around and sue the developer for the $2,000,000 (plus appropriate costs).

  5. skips Says:

    @seking, Brian 2 and Peter

    I suggest that you consider talking to a lawyer that specializes in IP matters before acting on your opinions. It is my understanding that Apple is guilty of infringement if the application is in violation. It is guilty of willful infringement if Apple knew that the application violated the photographer’s rights.

    This problem faces _all_ retailers, which is why most of them are very picky about what they put in their store. It is particularly important in cases like this situation where the retailer has much deeper pockets than the manufacturer/developer. Obviously when you run an electronic store like like Apple the risks are somewhat higher.

    I suspect that part of the reason this photographer is going after Apple is that he has already accused them of ripping off his idea in one of their advertisements, which used the concept of a “wall of computer monitors.” Unfortunately I cannot point you to where that case was resolved or if it is still in dispute.

  6. AdamC Says:


    The app is not infringing on the photographer’s rights but the image the developer using is. Apple is only making available the app so according to your comment Apple is guilty by being an accessory.

    You are right though about the fact that the photographer tried to sue Apple once but couldn’t get his pound of flesh and now he in making another attempt which I feel he is wasting his time and money.

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