imagesA U.S. District Court in New York has done a double-take on its Agence France Presse v. Morel decision handed down in January.

Granting a motion of reconsideration, the court clarified its previous ruling to reflect that photographer Daniel Morel (left, in a Karl Melander photograph) was entitled to receive only one award of statutory damages per work infringed jointly by defendants Agence France Presse and Getty Images.

This has been a much-heralded case because analysts have said it provided a legal slap and warning even to large institutions that they may not go online, particularly to social media sites, to nab, then use for commercial purposes the copyrighted creative works of others without permission.

Morel, a freelance photographer who was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during the devastating 2010 earthquake, sued AFP and Getty Images asserting they violated the Copyright Act of 1976, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Lanham Act by distributing his images from that catastrophe without his approval, gaining access to them when he posted them online through Twitter.

In its Jan. 14 order, the federal court found AFP and Getty had infringed Morel’s copyrights and were each liable for one statutory award per work infringed. That gave Morel two awards per work infringed.  The Copyright Act gives an owner the option to receive either statutory or actual damages, and pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(2), the maximum award may be increased from $30,000 to $150,000 on a showing of willfulness.  This potentially could have resulted in Morel receiving $2.4 million.

But the two picture agencies moved for reconsideration of Section E.1 of the summary judgment, in which the court concluded that “AFP and Getty are, at most, each liable for a single statutory damages award per work infringed.”  They argued this line could be interpreted to allow Morel to recover more than one statutory award per work infringed in this action. They argued this interpretation was incorrect as a matter of law and under the facts in this case. They sought clarification: Were they liable for eight or sixteen statutory damages awards?

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan ruled against Morel, saying: “The court concludes, as a matter of law, that, in cases such as this, a plaintiff seeking statutory damages for copyright infringement may not multiply the number of per-work awards available in an action by pursuing separate theories of individual liability against otherwise jointly liable defendants.”

This three-year court battle continues, with a trial date set for September.

Morel, by the way, has won professional accolades for his work in Haiti, including honors from a world press group that has an online display of some his photos here.