Norwegian photographer Stig Håvard Dirdal recently accused a Russian movie of plagiarism due to them recreating his work from 2015:

enter image description here

But is this actually something that would be protected by copyright, at least according to US law? It seems like while the composition of the photo of the same, it won't be covered by copyright protections as one can't use it to protect ideas.

  • Are we talking plagiarism or copyright infringement here?
    – jwh20
    Jan 12 at 14:02
  • @jwh20 copyright infringement Jan 12 at 16:53
  • You may want to update your question to reflect that. As it is the wording is somewhat confusing.
    – jwh20
    Jan 12 at 18:23
  • 1
    Related: Law META copyright faq
    – Rick
    Jan 12 at 18:31
  • 1
    @jwh20 is this better? Jan 12 at 18:38

The composition of a photograph, a painting, or an image of any sort is one of the elements that can be protected by copyright, and indeed one of those aspects that make an image original and thus a proper subject of a copyright under US law.

A new image that imitates the original and distinctive composition of another might be held to be a derivative work, and thus an infringement of copyright if done without permission. Note that the composition must be original. A photo of, say, two people standing side-by-side has been done many times, and would probably not have any distinctive element of composition.

The images shown as part of the question look rather distinctive to me, but for all I know this is a cliche that has been done over and over. If this came to an actual lawsuit a defendant could present evidence showing the composition to have been previously used by others, and thus common coin, free for anyone to adopt. This would be similar to the Scènes à faire concept. Things that have been done over and over are not original and are thus not protectable by copyright. That would ultimately be a judgement for the court to make, dependent on the facts of a specific case.

I suspect this answer is correct for the laws of many countries, but I can only confirm it for US copyright law.

  • 1
    In fact, one could argue that the composition of a photo is the core of what is protected, since otherwise, a photo is just a copy of something else. This is similar to the concept of selection, e.g. for sculptures made of driftwood. In this case, obviously, the artist did not create the driftwood, rather, the creative act lies in the decision of choosing this particular piece of driftwood and not any of the other thousands lying next to it on the beach. Jan 15 at 11:42
  • Depending on the facts, the imitator might be able to claim parody. cotmanip.com/articles/fair-use-parody Jan 15 at 15:20
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    @Paul Johnson Possibly. But the key factor in US case law on parody as fair use is that to be considered a parody for this purpose, the new work must be commenting on the source work, not merely using the source work's form to comment on something else. The linked article in your comment fails to mention this. Jan 15 at 15:48
  • Would this apply to a generic idea of "people standing in a Christmas tree pattern"? See an example here. Jan 16 at 9:13
  • The general idea, no. Whether that specific example, or any other example, copies enough of the expressive details beyond the mere idea to be infringing is a judgement for a court, if such a case gets to a court. The example in the comment does not seem to me as similar as the two in the question, but how similar is infringing is for a court. Jan 16 at 17:45

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