The Celebrity Picture Story, Part Deux: Who Holds Copyright?

copyrightSo, the thorny issue of photo copyrights is making headlines in the celebrity world again, and no, I don’t mean Bradley Cooper’s famous Oscar shot, or the monkey selfie this time.

I’m sure many of you have seem the iCloud hacking story, where a data security breach led to the hacking of, among other things, personal photographs of several female celebrities. The interesting little wrinkle on this is that at least one site is claiming that a celebrity tried—unsuccessfully—to get the photographs removed using the excuse of copyright infringement.

Jennifer Lawrence, as TMZ reports, got a reply to her takedown request which invoked the Bradley Cooper rule—namely, that since the pictures were clearly not ‘selfies’ then Ms. Lawrence herself did not press the shutter button, therefore did not own the copyright, therefore could not issue a takedown request.

As a further wrinkle, at least one celebrity has claimed she was underage when the photographs of her were taken. Those pictures did get taken down. So I don’t know what the letter of the law might be here. Ms. Lawrence wins on the moral argument, but it’s possible that on the legal side, she may not be able to get them taken down as copyright infringement. She may be able to get them taken down for other reasons—the underage photographs clearly got taken down so the website in question wouldn’t get hassled for hosting child porn. But copyright? I don’t know.

4 Comments on The Celebrity Picture Story, Part Deux: Who Holds Copyright?

  1. In many cases, such as an author picture used for the book jacket or website, the agreement between the author/subject of picture and the person with the camera, the photographer signs an agreement that either gives the copyright to the author or allows the author to use the picture as she sees fit for promotion, etc. with the photographer given credit for taking it.

  2. Moral argument, yes. However, celebs, as well as non-celebs, should remember these simple rules.
    1) Nothing is secure
    2) Never, ever, EVER put or store anything on the internet that you don’t want others to see!

  3. Ah yes, that monkey-picture dispute has begun to haunt us. Keep in mind that the issue there was that no human was involved, just a monkey and that the shots weren’t planned by the photographer, i.e. by having the monkey trip a light beam. That’s a special case. There’s an old legal principle that ‘hard cases make bad law.’ Don’t see them as precedents for anything that’s not almost identical. A racehorse tripping a light-beam shutter in the Kentucky Derby doesn’t make that photo public domain.

    Extending that narrow decision to someone else taking a picture is an enormous stretch. In the end, copyright ownership is likely to hinge, not on who tripped the shutter, but for what purpose the picture was taken. Common possibilities include:

    1. At a party, you, sensibly fully clothed, agree that I can take a picture of you with my camera for my own use. I own the copyright, but you retain the publicity rights for commercial use.

    2. You, again fully clothed, ask me, a stranger who happens to be passing by, to take your picture with your camera. I then return the camera to you and walk on. You own the copyright. The fact that I tripped the shutter matters not. Consider it like a work done for hire except here the hire was for free.

    Note that in neither case does that photo pass into the public domain. It’s the circumstances that determine who owns the copyright. For instance, I wrote over one-third of this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Presidential-Scandals-Jeffrey-Schultz/dp/1568024142

    But I’m not listed as the author or on the copyright page. I wrote numerous of the articles and got paid for that. But I and the other almost-ghost writer only get passing mention in the front of the book, something along the lines of “without which this book could not have been written.” Yeah, right!

    –Michael W. Perry, Auburn, AL

  4. What about the argument that the website with the photos has possession of stolen property?

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