An Oklahoma gas company owns the dramatic photos its employee took last year while on company time covering the Oklahoma City bombing disaster, a judge ruled Wednesday.
A nine-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Robin J. Cauthron settled the year-long copyright dispute between Oklahoma Natural Gas Co. and Lester E. LaRue, a former 32-year ONG employee.Using a company camera while performing his job as a safety coordinator, LaRue snapped a widely publicized photo of Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Fields cradling Baylee Almon, 1.
Almon was one of 19 children who died April 19, 1995, when a massive truck bomb detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The blast resulted in 168 deaths.
LaRue later entered into an agreement with Newsweek magazine to publish two of the bombing photographs, including the photo of Fields and Almon. The gas company claimed ownership last October through the copyright lawsuit.
"Although (LaRue) was the individual who actually took the photographs, he was acting within the scope of his employment at the time the photographs were taken," Cauthron said in the ruling.
The judge also said LaRue told the Canadian Broadcasting Co. last year that he used the company's film and camera while taking the photographs.
LaRue's statements, the judge wrote, "were clear and unequivocal that he took these pictures as part of his job."
Jerry J. Dunlap, LaRue's attorney, said it is "highly likely" that he will appeal the ruling.
Dunlap said he was "terribly disappointed" with the ruling, particularly because ONG's president admitted in a deposition that the photographs bear no relationship to the company's business.
"What does a fireman and a baby standing on the street have to do with supplying natural gas?" Dunlap asked.
LaRue had claimed 23 of more than 40 photographs he took were not related to his job of documenting ONG safety procedures after the blast.
Don Sherry, ONG spokesman, said company officials plan to confer with Almon's mother, Aren Almon, and Fields to determine what to do with the proceeds of photographs that were sold to publishing interests.
The company intends to use any proceeds to benefit bombing victims, he said.
Aren Almon and Fields intervened in the lawsuit, claiming LaRue should have consulted them before selling the photos and causing T-shirts depicting Fields and Baylee Almon to be sold publicly.
Attorney Brooks Douglass, representing Aren Almon and Fields, said he has not discussed with his clients what to do with any money derived from the lawsuit. Aren Almon said her attorney advised her not to comment.
Douglass said, "Really what they're after is control over how the photograph is used, and that can probably be done by working with ONG now."
Sherry said the judge has requested attorneys to determine how much money was earned from the photo rights and what will be done with the proceeds.
Dunlap said LaRue will dispute how much money ONG should receive. LaRue earned about $40,000 from the photographs and donated some of that to charity, he said.
Most of the money has helped pay for attorney's fees and costs, he said.
"Mr. LaRue was not fighting as a matter of greed," Dunlap said. "He was fighting for a principle, which was his right to determine how that photography was to be used and where the money would go."
A separate federal lawsuit is pending in which LaRue claims the company wrongfully terminated him during the dispute over the photos. Dunlap does not think the copyright ruling will adversely affect the wrongful termination lawsuit.
Sherry said, "This is a sad footnote to a more intense tragedy. No one ever wanted to see Lester lose his job. It did not have to come to this, but sadly, he persisted."
Charles Porter IV, a bank employee who takes pictures as a hobby, won the Pulitzer Prize last April for a similar photo of Fields and Baylee Almon and another bombing photo.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)