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SHELL v. CITY OF RADFORD

January 10, 2005.

ROBERT E.L. SHELL, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF RADFORD, VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF POLICE, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GLEN CONRAD, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Robert E.L. Shell ("Shell"), brings this action for copyright infringement, pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 101, et seq. Defendant has moved to dismiss the case. For the reasons set forth below, the defendant's motion to dismiss will be granted.

BACKGROUND

  After Marion Franklin, a model and photographer's assistant to Shell, died on June 3, 2003, investigators from the City of Radford Police Department arrived at Shell's studio and received permission from Shell to search the studio. The investigators seized a computer, digital cameras, photographs, and a memory card used to store pictures. Investigators later seized additional items from Shell's studio pursuant to a search warrant. Shell was arrested on charges related to the death of Marion Franklin on June 7, 2003.

  Detective Robert A. Wilburn, one of the investigators, downloaded a picture of Marion Franklin from Shell's website and included it on the front of his investigation notebook as an "inspiration" for his investigation. Detective Wilburn later removed the picture from his notebook. Detective Wilburn also made copies of certain photographs and included some of those copies in his investigation notebook. He has showed the photographs and copies to the Virginia State Police, experts retained by the Virginia State Police, and an Assistant United States Attorney. The City of Radford continues to retain custody of all the items seized from Shell.

  Shell registered the works in December of 2003. On July 24, 2004, Shell filed suit against the defendant alleging that the defendant infringed his copyright in certain original works by reproducing the copyrighted works in copies, by creating derivative and composite works from the copyrighted works, and by displaying the copyrighted works and derivative/composite works publicly following their seizure, all in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 106. On September 14, 2004, the City of Radford filed this motion to dismiss. Because the parties have included the declarations of Detective Wilburn and Shell as well as certain exhibits, the court will treat this motion as one for summary judgment.

  DISCUSSION

  Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is properly granted if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, viewing the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Terry's Floor Fashions, Inc. v. Burlington Industries, Inc., 763 F.2d 604, 610 (4th Cir. 1985). For a party's evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact to avoid summary judgment, it must be "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

  Shell's complaint focuses, in large part, on the City of Radford Police Department's seizure and retention of his computer hard drive and the images contained therein. Shell contends that he is unable to earn his living because the police department is preventing him from accessing his work. To the extent that Shell alleges copyright infringement based upon the defendant's continued retention of his computer hard drive and the images contained therein, his claim is outside the scope of the Copyright Act. The Act provides that the owner of a copyrighted work has the exclusive right to reproduce the work, prepare derivative works based upon the work, distribute copies of the work to the public, and display the work publicly. 17 U.S.C. § 106. The Act does not appear to cover a situation where a person other than the copyright owner simply possesses the work.

  With respect to the use of the particular works themselves, the defendant entreats the court to hold as a matter of law that law enforcement officers may copy and distribute copyrighted photographs and other pictorial media seized in the course of an investigation for use in that investigation. In the alternative, the defendant contends that the fair use doctrine applies to its use of Shell's photographs and other works. Courts have repeatedly emphasized that when a court determines whether a particular use is a fair use, "any per se rule is inappropriate." Bond v. Blum, 317 F.3d 385, 394 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539, 577 ...


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