Lawyer Who Used Photo to Sue Hundreds Could Owe Defendants $20 million

(INDIANAPOLIS) – A McCordsville, Ind., attorney could be on the hook to pay legal fees to hundreds of people he sued throughout the country in what some call ‘copyright troll’ litigation.

This week a federal jury determined that Richard Bell did not own a nearly twenty-year-old photo of the Indianapolis skyline — a photo he reportedly used to extract payment from hundreds of businesses and individuals who used the photo unaware that Bell claimed a copyright to the online image.

Richard Bell with the photo

Bell, who claimed to be a professional photographer though he had only been paid once by his sister for taking pictures, collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from people he had threatened to sue for copyright infringement related to the skyline photo.

Indianapolis-based Carmen Commercial Real Estate Services challenged Bell in federal court in 2016 after he attempted to collect $5,000 in payment from the real-estate firm to settle what Bell claimed was copyright infringement. Christopher Carmen, who wasn’t aware that Bell claimed to own the photo, readily apologized for using the image in a commercial blog, and offered to pay him $1,000 in an act of good faith. Carmen’s offer was 200 times more than the $5 market rate for rights to similar photos. Bell refused Carmen’s offer, and launched a legal suit attempting to collect $150,000.

“When he started going after people in 2011, he was demanding $200,” explained Marc Orr, who served as the jury foreman. “By the time he sued Carmen Commercial in 2016, he had upped his demand to $5,000.  Then in 2018, his demands went up to $10,000.”

Court and online records show this was a pattern for Bell. In fact, in 2019 alone, he filed 22 copyright lawsuits.

Paul B. Overhauser, an intellectual-property infringement attorney based in Greenfield, Ind., argued that Bell could not have taken the photo in March 2000 as he claimed. The photo showed a fountain operating in the Indianapolis Canal. But Overhauser introduced an affidavit from the City of Indianapolis, proving that the city did not turn on the fountain until April of each year.

“The jury determined Mr. Bell did not own the photo, which now means all of the defendants he has sued across the country should be able to use this jury finding to get their cases decided in their favor,” said Overhauser. “And because a prevailing defendant in a copyright suit can usually recover its attorney’s fees, Mr. Bell could be ordered to pay the attorney fees for all of those defendants.”

According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, the median cost for defending copyright infringement litigation is about $200,000. As Bell has sued well over 100 defendants, his exposure for defendants’ attorney’s fees could be more than $20,000,000.

While pleased with his victory in the case, Carmen is concerned for other small businesses who could fall victim to copyright troll litigation.

“It’s taking the number one resource — my time — out of the business from time to time. … And it’s just the emotional hassle of someone filing a suit against you, in particular when you know that the suit was baseless. Mr. Bell’s history kind of reinforced that feeling, that belief,” said Carmen.

Overhauser, who has practiced intellectual property law for over 30 years and has handled more than 500 infringement cases, said businesses and individuals should be familiar with copyright laws so they can protect themselves from predatory practices like copyright trolling.

“This is a scary example of what can happen when pulling images and content off the web,” said Overhauser. “It’s best to look for photography for purchase through a reputable stock photography site, or hire your own photographer and ensure your agreement defines it is ‘work for hire’.”