On March 19, 2013, three judges of the Court of Appeal of Paris ordered the photographer Marie-Laure de Decker to pay Gamma-Rapho 5000€ in addition to the 5000€ she had already been sentenced to pay them. The decision was deemed outrageous by the plaintiff, her friends and many photojournalists.
This report was publish in Le Journal de la Photography
This whole case is a showdown between two former photographers of the legendary Gamma photo agency. They are each other’s complete opposite, from the way they conceive photojournalism, to family backgrounds, to their basic approach to life.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Since 1971, Marie-Laure de Decker had been sending her pictures to Gamma. On July 29, 2009, on the eve of the agency’s bankruptcy,de Decker terminated her contract with Eyedea, which had taken over Gamma. The loss of 601 films led to a trial that ended with Eyedea having to pay de Decker 880,000€. Due to the bankruptcy, the debt remains outstanding, and it’s unlikely that the money will ever be paid.
According to Thierry Levy, lawyer of Marie-Laure de Decker’s, this first case, “has nothing to do with the one that followed,” but it still weighs heavy on the photographer’s finances and in the minds of her friends.
Lochon Returns to Gamma
François Lochon started out as a photographer at Gamma in 1974 and practically spent his entire career there. In 1978, he became part owner by purchasing the shares that had belonged to Gilles Caron, first declared missing and then legally dead, and to Raymond Depardon, who had left the agency for Magnum. In 1988, the other staff photographers resented how Lochon, according to one, “went around acting like the boss,”. So he left.
“In 1993, they called me back,” he said in April 2010 with a large grin. “I took the direction of the agency. But in the meantime, the policy of buying other agencies was already underway.” He would profit handsomely from the policy a few years later, when Gamma was purchased by Hachette Filipacchi. It was the second time he had sold his shares in the agency. His colleagues haven’t forgotten!
In April 2010, Lochon returned once again, “to save this agency that gave me everything I have.” After buying the assets of Eyedea, Lochon claimed that he wanted to rebuild, “that glorious Gamma team.” He must have quickly become disillusioned. Lochon’s former colleagues, those who had known him as a fellow photographer, then as a director, had few fond memories of him.
But in June 2011, Marie-Laure de Decker and Lochon sat down for a “calm discussion,” after which Lochon wrote de Decker an email saying, “There are about 770 of your photographs on the website that cannnot be sold per your request.” The mail concluded with the offer of a “trial period.” She refused. Lochon also informed her that he was holding on to two original slides of the singer Dalida which belonged to de Decker.
A year goes by…
A year later, neither one had made a move. But on June 5, 2012,de Decker summoned Gamma-Rapho for a July court appearance. Thierry Lévy was seeking to recover: every photograph belonging to de Decker regardless of the medium, the 770 scans mentioned by Lochon in his mail the previous year, and the two original Dalida slides.
The court ordered that the two slides be returned to their owner. As for de Decker’s archives and the 770 scans, the court declared itself incompetent, decided that emergency interim proceedings were inappropriate, and ordered de Decker to pay 5000 euros in legal fees.
Not surprisingly, Thierry Lévy called for an appeal. At that trial, held in the Commercial Court on April 6, 2012, the court once again ordered de Decker to pay an additional 5000 euros in legal fees.
Who Owns the Scans?
The court’s decision upset many photojournalists and friends of the photographer. “It’s ludicrous,” said Jean-François Leroy, director of the festival Visa pour l’Image. “The way I see it: Marie-Laure is being made to pay 10,000 euros to the agency that she helped make into what it was.”
Photo professionals are both indignant and confused by the two decisions, which have nothing to do (despite reports to the contrary) with the publication of her own photos on Facebook, but with the ownership of high-definition scans held by Gamma-Rapho. This aspect of the case will be tried, according to Levy, on May 14, 2014.
While it is clear that François Lochon is committed to returning photographs to their owners, it is not clear what he plans to do with scans of photographs taken by members of Eyedea teams. It is generally accepted by everyone in the profession that prints, duplicates and other materials remains the property of those who produced them.
More recently, when the auction of the International Herald Tribune archives was prohibited, the court rejected requests by Sipa Press and Gamma-Rapho to have their photographs returned to them. A pattern? The IHT presented these agencies with bills of sale proving that they had bought the images!
No offense to the photographers outraged by the affaire de Decker-Lochon, but the rights of a photographer over an image is unrelated to its medium. I can legally possess a print and yet not have the right to reproduce it. An agency may hold on to duplicates without being able to sell them.
The situation is grotesque, but it’s likely the outcome for the photographs belonging to Marie-Laure de Decker in the custody of François Lochon, and the result of their long-standing mutual hostility.