February 15, 2008 -- Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell successfully defended HIT Entertainment, the owner of the intellectual property rights associated with the Thomas & Friends children's property, against copyright infringement claims brought by a product photographer who claimed copyright in hundreds of photographs of Thomas & Friends toys.
On many occasions between 1999 and 2003, HIT Entertainment's licensee, RC2 Corporation, retained professional photographer Dan Schrock to photograph toys RC2 marketed and sold under license from HIT Entertainment. Schrock's photographs were later used by RC2 Corporation on product packaging and catalogs used in the sale and marketing of engines, cars and destinations associated with the world-famous Thomas & Friends books and videos.
In October 2004, Schrock filed a copyright infringement action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against HIT Entertainment and RC2 Corporation, alleging that the defendants’ use of his photographs beyond the one-year term Schrock allegedly granted to RC2 Corporation was unauthorized, and that he had never entered into a work for hire agreement or otherwise assigned his alleged copyright interests in the photographs to RC2 Corporation. Schrock sought an injunction prohibiting further use of the photographs, which could be found on product packaging for dozens of different toys, and to recover as damages a portion of defendants' profits associated with more than $100 million worth of toy sales between 2001 and the present.
On January 29, 2008, Judge Milton Shadur granted HIT Entertainment’s and RC2 Corporation's motions for summary judgment and dismissed Schrock's copyright infringement claims in their entirety. The court held that, despite the fact that photographs have been recognized as copyrightable subject matter since the 1860’s, Schrock lacked any copyright in his photographs because they were derivative works of the toys themselves and it was uncontested that the defendants had never granted authority to register any copyright interest in such derivative works. Joyce Slocum, the General Counsel of HIT Entertainment, commented that the ruling “recognized the critical importance of derivative works to a rights-owning company such as HIT Entertainment.”
For the copy of the opinion, click here.