Photographer’s copyright suit lists his subject as defendant


US photographer Brian Masck has filed suit against several parties over unauthorized and unpaid use of a photograph he shot 22 years ago that has since become an iconic image recognizable to almost any US sport fan. Among the defendants is the subject of the photo himself, Desmond Howard, who used the image on his own website.

In 1991, US freelance photographer Brian Masck captured an image of University of Michigan football star, Desmond Howard celebrating a score by emulating the pose of the Heisman Trophy (a player of the year award which he went on to win less than a month later). The image was first published in Sports Illustrated’s print magazine which credited Masck and paid him for use of the image. In the ensuing decades, however, the image has been used in everything from sports memorabilia and life-size posters to auto advertisements.

University of Michigan star, Desmond Howard striking a ‘Heisman’ pose after a touchdown against rival Ohio State University in 1991. Photograph by Brian Masck.

Masck says he never gave authorization for, nor received compensation from the other users of the photo, and has filed suit for copyright violation. Masck’s claim has been complicated somewhat by the fact that while he has long been aware of violations stretching back over 20 years, and even entered into a short-lived negotiation with Desmond Howard to sell him the copyright, he did not register the copyright with the US Copyright Office until 2011. The statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years, which would appear to significantly limit the number of parties from which Masck can seek damages. Potentially more serious, however, is that as intellectual property law expert E. Leonard Rubina told the Detroit Free Press, ‘There is a defense to lawsuits called “laches“, meaning that the owner of rights has slept on his/her rights too long and therefore lost them’.

While the question of whether the subject of a photo can bypass permission of the copyright’s owner would seem to be a settled issue, at least in the US, the larger ramifications of such a long delay in pursuing a claim remain to be seen. For more details, you can read Masck’s actual complaint filed with the US District Court for Eastern Michigan here.



Steve Balcombe

‘There is a defense to lawsuits called “laches”, meaning that the owner of rights has slept on his/her rights too long and therefore lost them’.

Sounds similar in spirit to a property law here in the UK, which says that if an owner has knowingly allowed someone to occupy land for more than (I think) 15 years without a tenancy, the occupier owns the land. I fell foul of that when I tried to remove someone from a property I owned and received legal advice that I would never succeed because the previous owner had done nothing about it over a period of 20 or 30 years.


While I understand photographers that they dont want photos stolen and used or misused (not hard to understand when you take photos yourself..). I think waiting 22 years is tiny bit too much..


Sorry, I disagree with this photographer. He would not have had this image to begin with had it not been for the “model”. Is this photographer so desperately in need of money that he has to sue a former college athlete for a snapshot he took 20 years ago?

Photographers like this are what give the rest of us a bad name.

Steve D Yue

copyright amendment:

revised so main subject(s) captured in image share full copyrights too

[where release not necessary by the subject if the subject didn’t know who the photographers were when taking her/him (e.g. sports/performance arts, etc, tv broadcast, motion pictures, or stills)]

if it didn’t have this before, it is long overdue

no photographer should/could be allowed to sue the main subject(s) of an image captured by any shooter.

if not, then some idiot photographer can shoot me without permission, whether to gain moneys or to defame me, and STILL sue me, if i use the photo as evidence or acquire usage an ‘image of me’ for my own use.



All photographs have a copyright owned by the creator the moment the shutter is pressed. It is not necessary to register a copyright in order to possess one. The process of registering a copyright, however, does aid in legal situations.

The following article is written in more accessable language than that found on the US copryright web site.

John Driggers

The issue of registration goes to damages you can claim. With a registered copyright you get statutory (lots of money) damages for each infringement. An unregistered copyright (the one you get when you create the picture) only gets “provable” loss (which could be little or nothing). Lawyers generally don’t take unregistered copyright cases because the recovery may not even cover their fees.


The photographer sounds like he needs to take another good photo, it’s been 20 years!


It sounds to me like the photographer needs to pay some bills and thought this was a good way to do so. If the copyright violations go back to the 1990s, I would ask two questions: 1) why did you wait so long; and 2) did you obtain a model release?


A lot of these posts serve to show how little some photographers know about copyright, model releases, usage licenses, and their rights.

I hope those who don’t bother to learn this or to protect their rights also don’t consider themselves to be professional photographers.


I’m a photographer and I think this is a frivolous lawsuit. Does this mean that anyone shooting from the stands that day can sue as well? This was a snapshot taken in a public place. The photographer incurred no expense. Had he been a real photographer he would have placed a copyright stamp on the image immediately, not wait 20 years. Also, I shot professionally back in the 1980’s, and yes, I had a copyright stamp for my prints.


‘There is a defense to lawsuits called “laches”, meaning that the owner of rights has slept on his/her rights too long and therefore lost them’.
I will be so pleased if this is thrown out of the court and even more if he is slammed with another countersuit for legal expenses (don’t know if it is possible wil US’s legislation though……)

photo chris

I’m amazed he didn’t register it the first time he sold it to SI. As soon as he became aware of unauthorized use years ago, he should have registered it and sued the offending parties for illegal use of his property. This is an iconic sports image, he should have made tons of money off of it…


As long as the origin of the photo is undisputed, the photographer should be protected by the Berne Convention regardless of the fact that he didn’t register it until 2011, or is USA different from other member states?


Did the photographer have permission from Desmond to take the photo? Or where Desmond’s rights signed away as some type of a blanket college agreement?

Because if Desmond didn’t sign a model release of some type, how can Masck have ownership? You can’t take a photo of just anyone and use it for gain. Or if you can, it seems like a silly law, because the photographer would have nothing w/o the subject and the pose.


yes you can take a photo of anybody in a public place. Specially if you are a public figure. Can you imagine asking Obama or Lindsay Logan to sign a model release so that you can take the photo and publish it.


For editorial use, no release is needed. Or do you think all those people in news photos signed releases?


However, for commercial use the subject needs to sign a model release form. I would say Howard (or his agent) has a stronger case here as Howard’s ‘image’ was use commercially to endorse products. He could even end up taking an action against the photographer.


He didn’t need Desmond’s permission. Model releases deal with privacy laws. Copyright is a different law altogether, and grants the author (photographer) full ownership of the image he took.


I’m fairly certain that amateur athletes (and most, if not all, pros) sign a blanket model release as part of their agreement to participate/entry form. The sports organizations normally hold all the publicity rights. While pros may get a piece of that action, NCAA athletes do not. For that matter, you’ll also find blanket model releases printed on the back of admission tickets (sporting events, theme parks, etc.).


We have much more important issues in our country than this.


You mean in NC or the States in general? Both would be correct answers I take it.
But, anyway, it’s not like not eating your own meals was going to help feed the rest of the world.
It’s not because you do not treat one aspect of the legality in your country that you will end up treating the other aspects in a more efficient way.


Poor cry baby! Mom, nobody loves me any more!


Brian Masck may not have a legal leg to stand on, but ridiculing photographer’s attempt to enforce a copyright, however imperfect it may be, is a strange reaction coming from another photographer.


Well, in the US copyright is taken rather seriously, so even if this precise case looks trivial, it might have some consequences in terms of future rights of authors.

On which basis is set the statue of limitation ?
– Is it just an arbitrary time-limit ?
– Is it from the moment you could reasonably be aware that the violation had taken place, to the time it would have taken to file a case… (like three years from the point you discover the violation).
– Can it be limited at all ? After all, one could claim that ownership’s right is pretty much fundamental in a capitalistic society, so it cannot be forfeit unwillingly…

In the mean time, is it really fair to pursue a claim when you just let it happen for so long?


The photographer could have taken action after the first violation occurred. If he did maybe the following violations of copyright would not have taken place.

Can it be inferred from his years long silence, while it was reasonable to assume he knew about the non-permitted use of his property, that he actually agreed to it?

But, that he may be looking for cash, or any other reason, I don’t think it is something to laugh at.

Apple can register square and round forms for smart-phones…
This guy’s work should be treated in the same way.

The nature of the person rightfully claiming, or his net worth, should not factor in the application of the law…


He’d better sue DPR (or whoever they really are now) as well then for all the clicks and advertising they get as a result of posting the image without permission


I’m amazed he didn’t bother to level the horizon :). Actually, not that great of a shot – other than the pose, the shot is not well framed (imho).

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