More and more celebrities are finding out that being in a photo doesn't necessarily mean they have the right to post it on social media.
Photo agencies have started aggressively pursuing legal action against celebrities who use paparazzi images without permission, adding to the friction that already exists between stars and the relentless photographers who pursue them.
Jennifer Lopez, Gigi Hadid, 50 Cent, Jessica Simpson, and Khloé Kardashian have all been sued after pulling photos of themselves off the internet and posting them on their social media, taking the bite out of the licensing fees the paparazzi and other agencies depend on for income.
Kardashian was sued in 2017 for copyright infringement after using a photographer's picture of her going to dinner at a Miami restaurant without permission. Khloé later admitted that she saw the photo on a fan website and reposted to her widely followed Instagram. The two parties eventually reached an undisclosed settlement.
Simpson was sued in January after she posted a photo of herself leaving the Bowery Hotel in New York. The photographer said he had only licensed the photo for limited use to the Daily Mail when Simpson posted it on her Instagram account, which has 4 million followers. Someone on her team then tweeted it out to her 7 million Twitter followers.
J.Lo was sued last week after posting a photo of herself in a striped blouse and high-waisted pants that was taken by professional photographer Michael Stewart. The Instagram story added the caption, “Today was a good day.”
It may seem counterintuitive that one's own image can be out of bounds, but legal experts said copyright law clearly favors the photographer.
“The photographer owns the copyright to the photograph; it doesn’t matter who is in it,” said entertainment lawyer Bryan Sullivan. “The subject of the photo doesn’t have any rights to the picture as long as it was taken in a public place.”
Sullivan said the penalties for willful infringement are steep — $150,000 for each violation. Photographers can also sue for loss of profit and legal fees.
Sullivan said that while celebrities might be able to make the case that the photographer is profiting off their likeness, most simply decide to take the easier route and settle.
But not all entertainment photographers believe infringement lawsuits are justified. Celebrity photographer Giles Harrison said it bears remembering that they are making money off the stars in the first place.
“I think you should be flattered that a celebrity thinks your picture is good enough to be posted on their social media,” he said.
Many celebrities slyly engage their own photographers or work in conjunction with them to snap their “candid” styles to avoid these type of legal hassles, he added.
Harrison said he thinks the spike in lawsuits is due to the fact that photo agencies and photographers are making less money these days.
“I personally believe that the agencies are making so little money on directly selling the images to people that they have to resort to essentially shaking down celebrities to make money,” he said.
One of the biggest repositories of celebrity photos, Getty Images, declined to comment for this story. Two other photo agencies, BackGrid and Splash News, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Harrison said photographers should just accept that the occasional copyright infringement is a minor occupational hazard.
“It’s not like the celebrity is taking the photo and it is being put on a billboard or advertising campaign or something like that,” he said. “It’s social media. Who gives a shit?"