A jury awarded photographer Daniel Morel $1.2 million in his copyright infringement suit against Getty Images Inc. and Agence France-Presse after concluding that the defendants willfully made unauthorized use of photos he posted on the social media site Twitpic.

Morel was in Port au Prince when the devastating earthquake hit the island of Haiti in 2010 and posted his pictures on Twitpic, a Web site that allowed users to post pictures on Twitter. Another user posted Morel’s photos as his own on Twitter, thereby creating some confusion about photo credit and ownership. The defendants – as well as other news outlets such as CBS and ABC – began to use the pictures in newspapers, on television, and online.

Morel made repeated efforts to correct the attribution of his photos and license them through his agency, which contacted both Getty and the AFP. Even a cease-and-desist letter from his lawyer didn’t stop the defendants from continuing to publish the photos. The AFP then filed a declaratory judgment action, arguing that it did not infringe Morel’s copyright in the images because he gave away his licensing rights by posting the pictures to Twitpic.

A federal court judge disagreed in December 2010, finding the defendants liable for copyright infringement, but leaving the questions of whether the defendants’ actions were willful and what would be appropriate damages for the jury.

The jurors ultimately sided with Morel, awarding the maximum amount of damages possible under the copyright statute as well as an additional $20,000 for 16 violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Why it matters: “We believe this is the first time these defendants or any other major digital licensors have been found liable for the willful violation of a photojournalist’s copyrights in his own works,” Morel’s law firm said in a statement about the verdict. The $1.2 million verdict also highlights the risk of appropriating material from social media sources. While content on such sites is arguably meant to be shared, this does not outweigh respect for the ownership of the content.