Picture imperfect 

AAA and APA at loggerheads over photo rights.

A good bit of the fun of being the parent of a high school football or basketball player — especially in small-town Arkansas — is in seeing your child's photo in the newspaper the morning after the big game. But a pending showdown and lawsuit between the Arkansas Press Association and the Arkansas Activities Association has the potential to knock photo coverage of the biggest games off the local sports page.

Based in North Little Rock, the AAA is the governing body that conducts and oversees most statewide post-season high school sports events, with individual high schools putting in “bids” to host those tournaments in their facilities. At issue is a change to AAA rules concerning who owns the rights to photos taken at AAA-sponsored playoff, semifinal and final games. In July, the AAA changed its rules to assert copyright ownership of all video, audio and photographs taken at AAA-sponsored post-season high school sporting events. The rules were also changed to say that while members of the media are allowed to take photos and video of AAA events “for print and electronic news coverage,” photographers that plan on selling photos online are required to purchase a pass — $35 per playoff game, and $50 per semifinal or final game. Though many newspapers sell reprints of sports photos on their websites, the rules make no exception for photographs shot by newspaper photographers sent to cover the game.

The Arkansas Press Association announced they would file suit over the rule changes in late October. With the high school football playoffs looming, the AAA suspended the new rules from Nov. 8 to Dec. 1, to give both parties time to try and come to an out-of-court agreement.

Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said that post-season high school sports associations all over the country have raised the issue of copyright ownership of photos and video taken at events this season. In Illinois, a lawsuit is pending over a rules change almost identical to those made by the AAA, and the Louisiana counterpart to the AAA only rescinded changes to their copyright laws there after state newspapers threatened a boycott. Larimer thinks it's no coincidence.

“I think these guys all get together at national meetings and conferences and so forth, and somebody thought, ‘Hey, maybe we ought to have a policy on this.' That's where all this is coming from, I think. It'd be kind of a coincidence for all this to have just occurred independently.”

Larimer said that while he understands the reasoning behind the rule change — an attempt to get a cut of profits from independent digital photographers who take photos of games and then sell them online to players and their relatives — the AAA rules shouldn't have been rewritten so broadly as to restrict legitimate news organizations.

“There are some issues with the claiming of copyright of photos taken by news photographers other than those photos used in the actual coverage of the event,” Larimer said. “In other words, the photos newspapers put up on their websites, [the AAA has] has an issue with that. They have an issue with selling images from the website and profiting from the sale of photos taken at the event.” Larimer said that while member papers of the Press Association do sell reprints or gallery photos of high school sports events on their websites, the income from the sales is so small that it's mostly a public service. Larimer said the AAA has granted exclusive Internet publication rights to one photographer. In a media packet provided by the AAA, NWA Photography in Fayetteville is listed as having “the Internet photography rights for all AAA regional and state championship games.”

Beyond the copyright issue, Larimer said, is the question of whether the AAA rules infringe on newspapers' First Amendment rights — specifically the right to take and own the copyright on photographs of a public event, played on a publicly owned field.

Reached at the AAA, assistant executive director Wadie Moore said that the organization has been advised not to comment on the issue due to the pending lawsuit. Moore did say, however, that AAA rules have been distorted in news coverage, and that he didn't understand the cause of the controversy.

“I have no idea why they're [the Arkansas Press Association] upset,” Moore said. “I've read stuff that's not in our policy. They keep saying that our policy is that they can't do this and that, and it's just not in there.”

Though Larimer has heard talk of a boycott if the rules are allowed to stand, he is cautious of taking that route. He said that while his knee-jerk reaction is that it would be successful, it will only hurt players and their families.

“They don't have an opportunity to see the team photos and photos of their children and grandkids in the paper and have those for their scrapbooks,” he said. “That's not fair to them, and I certainly don't want to be a party to that. Actually, that could end up having a negative backlash and kind of defeat the purpose of what we're trying to do.”

While Larimer said the AAA's suspension of the rules changes was helpful to the process, it doesn't mean they're willing to rescind them altogether. Rather than let the issue hang around, he said bringing it to a speedy resolution is likely the best course.

“If they can prove to us this is something that's going to be workable and not be a copyright problem and not a prior restraint problem, then we'll learn to live with that,” he said. “I just wanted to settle this now rather than letting it linger for awhile and grow up to be a big problem. It's easier to handle it now while it's in its infancy.”

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