The American Bar Association (ABA) Journal reports a Florida-based dentist can pursue intellectual property rights of the before-and-after photos of his cosmetic dentistry patients after a federal appeals court reversed a trial court’s decision. The Atlanta-based 11th United States Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision tossing out a Florida dentist’s claim to establish his before-and-after smile photos of his dental patients had enough originality to get copyright protection. The unpublished May 1st per curiam decision gives the Boca Raton dentist, Dr. Mitchell Pohl, the ability to seek intellectual property rights on those photos of his cosmetic dentistry work, which are displayed on his website.

 

The Case

 

Dr. Pohl originally sued after a company named Officite used the dentist’s 2005 photo of a patient’s before-and-after images. Officite used the photos on websites that promoted other dentists’ practices. Last summer, United States District Judge Mark Walker held the photos in question did not have enough “creative spark to merit copyright protection.

 

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, holding Judge Walker failed to acknowledge some evidence or originality that favored Dr. Pohl’s position. The 11th Circuit reasoned that Dr. Pohl took the before photos when the patient was in the dental chair while the after photos included a photography screen, close-up photos, and under direction to look at the camera and smile. The 11th Circuit highlighted that the United States Supreme Court has set a low bar when it comes to originality; it only requires some slight – or minimal – degree of creativity. When the court looked at the evidence in the light most favorable to Dr. Pohl, it found there was enough for him to proceed with the case. This was because the court found Dr. Pohl had a specific intention on how he wanted the photo to look. Dr. Pohl’s attorney, according to the ABA Bar Journal report, stated he will ask the lower court to rule on the issue of copyright infringement.

 

The Bigger Picture

 

The lower court’s decision to toss Dr. Pohl’s copyright infringement claim out last year could have had the potential to disrupt long-standing copyright protection as it has historically been applied to photographs. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ reversal clearly shows the court is not veering from precedent that sets a low bar when it comes to determining originality in this area of the law. To be sure, the input of the author must be factored in when determining originality in intellectual property law. Notwithstanding, the 11th Circuit’s decision also makes it clear that the use of a photograph is not enough to determine whether or not the image is sufficiently original to merit copyright protection.

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