Topless Celebrity Photos! Or How To Get Sued Like A Paparazzo

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A few weeks ago, I wrote this piece about how artists own the copyright to their work even after they've sold the physical manifestation of that work (i.e. retaining the copyright over a painting even after selling the physical painting to a buyer).  The post generated a lot of interest and in the ensuing discussion, I got several variants of this question:

"If I take a topless photo of [Hot Celebrity Female] at a secluded beach, can she interfere with my ownership over that photo and prevent me from mass producing it and make a mint?"

As with everything in the law, the answer is a resounding "kind of!" Hot Celebrity Female can indeed interfere with your ability to profit from selling topless photos of her to a tabloid... but not through manipulation of copyright ownership (which, I presume, is what the question was really asking). When the subject of your art is another person, they cannot interfere with your ownership of the copyright, nor can they claim ownership rights over that photo simply because they are the subject.  The copyright is vested only in the artist except in these three scenarios:

  1. Sale of the copyright to another (i.e. selling the photo and copyright to TMZ)
  2. Conveyance of the copyright through a bequest or gift (i.e. giving the photo and copyright to a family member or friend)
  3. Certain work for hire situations (usually on projects that require collaboration, like films)

"But," you might ask, "don't celebrities have ownership rights over their personal appearances?"  Nope.  Neither copyright nor trademark law offer protection over your personal appearance.  Trademark law DOES allow you to register many other visual elements such as logos, symbols, patterns, designs - but your personal appearance is not granted any protection under the intellectual property laws of this country.  This means that, unless you sell or gift the copyright, or the copyright isn't yours to begin with, there's really nothing that Hot Celebrity Female can do to interfere with your ownership.  If you are inclined to do so, you are free to take a highly compromising picture of her and sell or license that copyright to TMZ, The Daily Mail, The New York Post, and any other publication that profits from the exploitation of celebrity culture.  You'll probably make a small bounty doing that and in fact, there's an entire group of professional photographers who make their living precisely this way: the paparazzi.

But that's not the end of the story.  Owning the copyright to topless photos of Hot Celebrity Female does not give you an unassailable right to do whatever you please with those photographs.  Even though she has no ownership rights over the photos, she can still take you to court in a big way.  Everyone - from the lowliest plebe to the most glorious celebrity - has a right to a certain degree of privacy, and tort law provides several tools that allow people to fight an invasion of that privacy.

One of the more potent tools that celebs like to use is something called "appropriation of name or likeness."  An appropriation of name or likeness is considered an invasion of privacy when a person uses your name or likeness  for commercial purposes without your permission.  So when you take a compromising photograph of a celebrity, especially in locations where they have a certain expectation of privacy, you open yourself to liability.  That's why paparazzi and the magazines they sell to get sued ALL THE TIME.  Usually, if the celebrity is in a public place, like at a restaurant or on a red carpet, there's little they can do to fight publication of that image, so an appropriation of likeness claim won't go very far.  But when the photo is snapped in a private location (like in their backyards or on a balcony at a remote resort in the rain forest), you could end up losing all the money you made from selling that picture.  Remember last fall when some paparazzo snapped photos of a topless Kate Middleton on a secluded balcony using a telephoto lens? Do you remember the Royal family suing the french magazine that published them?  The magazine lost that battle because Princess Kate wasn't photographed topless at a public beach... she was on a private balcony that was obscured by tree cover.  The only way the photographer was able to get those photos was by using the kind of lens usually reserved for NSA spy satellites.

So the moral of the story... Hot Female Celebrity can't take away your ownership over that photo you took of her.  But she can, in some situations, prevent you from making money off of it.  You, as the photographer, have to decide whether all that trouble is worth it just to catch a glimpse of Kate Middleton's boobs.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA