Do You Own You?

It’s long been known that one of the pitfalls of being in the public eye is you don’t control your own image. Paparazzi can take photos of you that can be published anywhere, with the photographer getting paid, the media outlet generating revenue from ad sales and subscriptions, and the subject themselves neither seeing a dime nor having any control over how they look. That’s because traditionally, photographers have full copyright when they capture an image of a celebrity, particularly in public. Now, a bunch of new lawsuits are taking ownership even further out of celebrity hands, with photographers and their agencies suing stars who dare to post paparazzi photos of themselves on their social media accounts without licensing them first. 

There are plenty of celebs under fire at the moment, including LeBron James, Bella Hadid, and Dua Lipa. A few examples: Melrose Place and Real Housewives star Lisa Rinna posted on Instagram photos of herself that were taken by a paparazzo represented by the Backgrid agency; Backgrid is suing Rinna for copyright infringement. Rinna accuses Backgrid of “weaponizing” copyright law, while Backgrid retorts that once one of their paparazzi photos are posted without permission, magazines like People will be less likely to buy it because fans will have already seen it. Another case: model Gigi Hadid, who is being sued for copyright infringement by agency Xclusive-Lee over posting one of its images to Instagram. Hadid’s legal team asserts her post constitutes fair use because Hadid “creatively directed” the photo by choosing her outfit, posing and smiling, thus contributing “many of the elements that the copyright law seeks to protect.” Hadid also cropped the image when she posted it, which she says refocuses the photo on her pose and smile, rather than the photographer’s composition. 

Model Emily Ratajowski recently settled a suit brought by a photographer over a photo he took of her walking outside of a flower shop, her face completely obscured by a bouquet she was carrying. Ratajowski posted the photo on an Instagram story with the text “MOOD FOREVER,” intending to convey how she feels like hiding from paparazzi. While the case settled, the judge indicated her text served as a commentary on the celebrity/paparazzi dynamic that may have amounted to transformative use, protecting her from a copyright claim. 

This wasn’t Ratajkowski’s first battle with copyright law. She wrote a long essay on how it feels to be unable to control her image after a photographer took hundreds of nude photos of her early in her career, supposedly for a magazine editorial, and later published them as several books and showed them in a gallery exhibit — all without asking her permission or paying her. Ratajowski also had photos she posted to her Instagram account turned into “paintings” by renowned appropriation artist Richard Prince and sold for $80,000 each. She writes, “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own.” 

It’s easy to sympathize with the celebrities’ position. While mere mortals often scorn celebrity complaints about their lack of privacy and the invasiveness of paparazzi — “hey, it comes with the territory!” — it seems like adding insult to injury to allow paparazzi to take photos of celebrities against their will and then demand the celebs pay to use the photos themselves.

Also, it’s not hard to see why Ratajkowski or others might feel victimized by someone in a position of relative power profiting from images without sharing those profits. (For what it’s worth, a number of states do have laws against revenge porn, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

In that vein, in the wake of #metoo, the celebrities’ position is also appealing because it’s not hard to see it as trying to subvert the male gaze by allowing the (mostly) female celebrity subjects to at least profit from or assert some element of control over the pictures they appear in. 

However, from an intellectual property law point of view, this is not how it works. 

For starters, copyright law is really clear. The copyright for photos rests with the person who took the photo. Posing for a picture is not subject to copyright protection, and copyright law doesn’t give the subject of a photo rights to the copyright. This is because a copyright comes into existence when it is “fixed,” meaning recorded on a piece of film or a memory card — and those are owned by the photographer, not the subject.

Moreover, copyrights trump any publicity rights that celebrities have. Article 1, section 8, clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution says that Congress has the power to enact laws to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” This is because we as a society benefit from encouraging creators the right to create by allowing them to profit from their work. Celebrities and their lawyers would say that they too should be able to profit because they provided a service by appearing in the photograph and/or by being famous, and thus photoworthy. While the law isn’t supposed to get into judging the relative value of different artistic contributions, let’s be real: there is a difference between the creation of even a bad novel or artwork and smiling for a second into a camera lens on a step-and-repeat. 

What’s more, in contrast to copyright law, the right of publicity is — at least for now — a product of state law. This means that under established law, if there’s a conflict between the rights of a copyright holder and the rights of a celebrity to control his or her image under the applicable right of publicity, the copyright holder’s interests come first. 

This isn’t to say that this is the only policy balance that could be struck between the rights of the copyright holder and the rights of the subject of a photo, but it’s the one, for better or worse, that we currently have. So yes, the law is clear: if you’re a celeb, not only do you not profit from photos taken of you in public, if you want to use them yourself, you have to pay.

Also, look at it this way: none of us own everything about ourselves anymore (think about your personal data), nor do we profit from it. There’s no reason for the famous and the sort-of-famous to be different from everyone else.