A US district judge has ruled that two news organizations infringed upon the copyrights of photographer Daniel Morel by using images he posted to Twitter without first seeking his permission. In a court filing yesterday, Judge Alison J. Nathan found that both Agence France-Presse and The Washington Post had improperly used images Morel took of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti back in 2010.

Morel had posted several photos of the wreckage after the earthquake to Twitter via TwitPic; eight of those images were discovered and sent to the AFP photo desk that evening by the news agency's director of photography. The same photos were then distributed by AFP to Getty Images. The Washington Post, which subscribes to the Getty Images service, later published four of the photographs itself. Rather than admit wrongdoing, AFP had argued that images posted on Twitter were completely open to commercial re-use — but Judge Nathan disagreed, writing that such an interpretation "would be a gross expansion of the terms of the Twitter TOS."

"As has always been our policy, Twitter users own their photos."

However, Judge Nathan didn't side entirely with Morel, deciding to constrain statutory damages to a single award per infringed photo, rather than the multiplicative result Morel had been seeking — one that could have allowed statutory damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, the ruling sets a clear precedent for the commercial use of social media imagery, and may nudge sites that rely heavily on using such imagery to adjust their practices accordingly. For its part, Twitter told us in a written statement that "As has always been our policy, Twitter users own their photos."