A New York federal court judge has ruled that a photographer did not grant a blanket license to publish his pictures of the Haiti earthquake by linking to them on Twitter.

Photojournalist Daniel Morel was in Port au Prince, Haiti, last January when a devastating earthquake hit the island. After photographing the immediate aftermath, he uploaded his photos to Twitpic and then posted them on Twitter under the username “photomorel.” Another Twitpic user copied the photos and reposted them on his page almost immediately, which created some confusion about photo credit and ownership. News outlets like CBS, ABC, Getty Images, and Agence France Presse (“AFP”) began to use the photos in newspapers and on television, as well as the Internet.

Morel repeatedly sought to correct the attribution of the photos and license them through his agency, which contacted Getty and the AFP. His lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to the AFP, which allegedly continued to publish the photos, even crediting some of them to the other poster.

The AFP then sought a declaratory judgment that it did not infringe Morel’s copyright in the photos, arguing that he gave away his licensing rights under the terms of Twitter and Twitpic. Twitpic’s login page cautions users that they operate under Twitter’s Terms of Service, which grants the rights for Twitter to make users’ Tweets available to “other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter.” While the site “encourage[s] and permit[s] broad re-use of content,” it also adds that “what’s yours is yours – you own your content.”

Relying on Twitter’s Terms of Service, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Pauley III said that Twitter’s terms only granted a license to share content with its partners – which did not include AFP or Getty. “[T]he provision that Twitter ‘encourage[s] and permit[s] broad re-use of content’ does not clearly confer a right on other users to re-use copyrighted postings. Rather, that permissive language stands in contrast to the express, mandatory terms conferring a ‘license’ and ‘rights’ on Twitter,” the court said. “That language is ambiguous and insufficient to establish on the pleadings that Morel ‘understood that the promise [Twitter] had [the] intent’ to confer a license on other users.”

The court further refused to dismiss Morel’s claims under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

To read the court’s decision in AFP v. Morel, click here.

Why it matters: Despite the unusual facts and the initial confusion surrounding credit for Morel’s photographs, the suit serves as an important reminder. While content on social networking sites like Twitter is meant to be shared, the appropriate steps to respect copyright and ownership of content must be followed.