Damages awarded for groundless threats of copyright infringement

The Federal Court of Australia has awarded Aboriginal activist artist, Richard Bell, damages of $147,000 against New York filmmaker Tanya Steele. This decision marks the first time that damages have been awarded where a third party had content removed from the internet without justification.Screenshot Richard Bell


Richard Bell paid Tanya Steele to assist him in making the film “The Blackfella’s Guide to New York” in 2010 while he was an artist in residence in New York City.

A film trailer for the film was provided by Richard Bell to Milani Gallery in Brisbane. Josh Milani of Milani Gallery posted the video online using the file sharing service Vimeo.

Tanya Steele claimed copyright in the video and demanded that the Vimeo website remove the trailer, claiming copyright infringement. This was done.

In response to Tanya Steele’s threats, Josh Milani did not display the footage on the Internet, postponed a showing of Richard Bell’s artworks, and delayed the sale of a catalogue of Richard Bell’s artworks that included a still from the trailer.

Richard Bell sued Tanya Steele in Australia, claiming that he owned copyright in the film and seeking damages for the losses he suffered due to Tanya Steele’s threats including losses due to the lost opportunity to promote and sell his artworks at an opportunistic time and a loss of artistic credibility and integrity.


The Federal Court said:

“It is clear the client made groundless threats against both the applicant and his agent, Mr Milani”,

and that it was appropriate to make orders for damages in the amount sought by the applicant.

Orders were made declaring Richard Bell the owner of the copyright in the footage and declaring Tanya Steele’s threats unjustifiable pursuant to section 202(1) of the Copyright Act.

Richard Bell was awarded $147,000 in damages for the lost sales of paintings and catalogues that he suffered as a result of Tanya Steele’s threats.  He was also awarded lump sum costs totaling $22,224 against Tanya Steele.

Impact of Decision

This decision makes clear the importance of ensuring that any claims of copyright infringement are correct and justifiable.

If you request that a file sharing or social media site take down an image or video on the grounds of copyright infringement, make sure that you are the owner of the copyright and have proof of your ownership, otherwise it could be actionable.