Similar Photographs and Copyright Infringement: Temple Island Collections v New English Teas

Can the copyright in a photograph be infringed by shooting a similar photograph? The answer to this question has generally been thought to be yes. In the first UK judgment directly on this point the Patents County Court has confirmed this.

His Honour Judge Birss QC decided that a photograph of a red London bus against a black and white background of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, with a blank sky, was similar enough to another photograph of the same subject matter to infringe copyright.

The two photographs are reproduced in the judgment and can also be seen here.

The decision is perhaps surprising, given the commonplace subject matter of the photographs. The judge himself admitted that he found it a difficult question, but in the end he decided that a substantial part of photograph 1 had been reproduced in photograph 2.

The Temple Island case is likely to herald more claims of this kind. The judgment should be studied by anyone imitating an existing photograph or commissioning a photograph based on a similar photograph. “Inspiration” and “reference” are fine in themselves, but there is a line between copying ideas and copying the original expression of ideas which is often a difficult one to draw.

The monetary value of most photographic copyright claims is low. The cost of court action makes them uneconomic to pursue. This is all going to change soon. The UK government has accepted a recommendation in the Hargreaves Report that the Patents County Court (likely to be re-named the Intellectual Property County Court) should operate a small claims procedure for intellectual property claims under £5,000. Similar proposals are now being considered in the US in an effort to make the courts more widely accessible in the majority of copyright infringement cases which don’t (even in the US!) involve telephone number damages.


Copyright in Portrait Photographs: ECJ Decision in Painer v Standard Verlags GmbH
Portrait Photographs, Photofits and Missing Person Apeals: Painer v Standard Verlags gmbh

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.