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Go Big Sue? Sports photographer David Coyle suing University of Kentucky

| December 17, 2012 | Reply
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Former University of Kentucky sports photographer David Coyle covering the 2007 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

Former University of Kentucky sports photographer David Coyle covering the 2007 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn. Coyle was engaged by UK Athletics from 1988 to 2010, but filed a federal copyright-infringement lawsuit against the school and four Lexington businesses on Dec. 7, 2012. (Photo © 2007 Billy Suratt/Apex MediaWire)

Dec. 7, 1941 was a date FDR said would live in infamy. Dec. 7, 2012, while not as infamous, is the date a different sort of bombshell was delivered: longtime University of Kentucky sports photographer David Coyle filed a federal copyright-infringement lawsuit against UK and four Lexington businesses, as first reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader.

An award-winning sports photographer known widely throughout the Southeastern Conference and beyond, Coyle made many iconic photos for use in University of Kentucky media guides, advertisements and other collateral from 1988 to 2010. He’s now alleging the school and its trustees’ athletics committee infringed upon his copyright ownership by allowing Paul Miller Ford, the UK Federal Credit Union, Hands On Originals and FO Holdings to use his photos without permission.

Coyle’s lawsuit alleges he is the sole and rightful owner of most photos he made for the university during that time frame. The photographer is seeking a declaratory judgment he is the owner of the copyrights to those photos, as well as unspecified damages and an injunction preventing UK and the businesses named as co-defendants from using any of Coyle’s photos without his permission.

While the lawsuit and Lexington Herald-Leader story both say Coyle served as “either chief photographer or director of photography for UK Athletics” during the specified time period, it’s unclear whether he was a university employee or an independent contractor. Coyle’s bio on his photography business’s website says, “From 1988 to 2010, he served as the sole staff photographer for the University of Kentucky’s Athletic Department.”

Whether or not Coyle was a university employee will be an important factor in determining copyright ownership of his photographs. Absent a contract agreeing to some sort of alternate arrangement, United States copyright law specifies employers own the copyright to any work created by an employee within the scope of their employment. If Coyle was an independent contractor, however, he would automatically own the copyrights to all his photos (absent a contract signing away some or all of those rights to the university).

About the defendants

The case hinges on the 12-year relationship between Coyle, the University of Kentucky and its now-defunct UK Athletics Association (which was superseded by the Athletics Committee of its board of trustees — named in the lawsuit — earlier this year), as well as the use of Coyle’s photos by four Lexington businesses named as co-defendants in the lawsuit: Paul Miller Ford Inc., the University of Kentucky Federal Credit Union, Hands On Originals Inc. and FO Holdings LLC.

Established in 1945 and dissolved in 2012, UKAA was an affiliated corporation which was completely self-supporting; its $90 million budget received no money from the academic side of UK. The association’s actual duties had apparently waned over the years, reaching a point where it did little more than just meet annually to approve its own budget.

Hands On Originals makes custom logo apparel and promotional items for the scholastic, corporate and Christian markets. The company came under fire earlier this year for refusing to print T-shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival, an annual gay-pride event, on religious grounds. Lexington Pride Festival organizers filed a discrimination complaint with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission and their complaint was upheld Nov. 26.

FO Holdings owns and operates Fan Outfitters, a fan shop selling college sports-related apparel and merchandise both online and in seven retail stores located in Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Basis for Coyle’s lawsuit

David Coyle served as either the principal photographer or director of photography for UKAA from 1988 to 2010, according to the lawsuit, and, as owner of Team Coyle Photography, contracted with other sports photographers to provide UK with coverage of its varsity intercollegiate athletics teams.

“This work included not just action photographs taken during competitions, but also posed photographs for media guides, publicity releases, posters, and other advertising distributed by UKAA,” the lawsuit says. “Even now, some of the best known pictures of Kentucky football and men’s basketball from this period are ones that were produced by David Coyle.”

Coyle was already an established professional photographer when he began working for UK, the lawsuit says, and he continued simultaneously servicing other clients, such as Host Communications, Caywood Ledford Productions, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. Team Coyle Photography has also served as official photographer for the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament from 1999 to present, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims Coyle’s images made on behalf of the university fall into four separate categories based on which of four separate working arrangements was in place at the time the images were created:

  1. First period images (created by Coyle from 1988 to 1991): Not works made for hire.
  2. Second period images (1991 to 2005): Not works made for hire.
  3. Third period images (2005 to 2009): Not works made for hire.
  4. Fourth period images: (July 2009 to December 2009): Works made for hire.

Chet White apparently took Coyle’s place as the primary photographer for UK Athletics in August 2010. White, 37, is a Louisville native who earned a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from Western Kentucky University in 2005.

White worked as a staff photographer at The News & Advance in Lynchburg, Va., from May 2006 to November 2009, winning several awards in the National Press Photographers Association’s annual Best of Photojournalism contest. After leaving the newspaper, he moved back to Kentucky to start a family and a photography business.

(Click here to read the full text of sports photographer David Coyle’s copyright-infringement lawsuit against the University of Kentucky.)

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I'm a Mid-South photojournalist, Kentucky writer and digital media consultant (or eNinja™). Circle me on Google Plus at Plus.BillySuratt.com, follow me on Twitter at @surattb and Instagram me at @BillySuratt. Got a news tip or suggestion about some journalism that needs committed? Email blog@billysuratt.com (discretion is always guaranteed).