Gone are the days when media outlets would pay thousands and thousands of dollars for photos of celebrities doing ordinary things and showing off the fact that they were “just like us.” As print media continues to fade into obscurity, society’s obsession with celebrity has migrated towards the Internet. In doing so, along with the rise of social media, the power to control their own narrative has been placed back in the hands of celebrities themselves. With the sudden rise and downfall of celebrity culture we’ve seen in the last decade, however, paparazzi and photographers are not taking the changes lightly and are going so far as to sue celebrities for posting images of themselves on their own personal social media accounts. Here’s why:
It wasn’t long ago that celebrity culture dominated print media. In the early 2000s, tabloids and print magazines would pay thousands of dollars to any photographer who could capture candid shots of a celebrity in public — whether that was a picture of Ben Affleck buying books which sold for $10,000, a picture of Britney Spears getting her nails done which sold for $20,000, or the last appearance of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston together in public which sold for a staggering $500,000. As society’s obsession with celebrities increased into the latter half of the decade, so did the prices that magazines were willing to pay for photos. This led to increased, and at times violent, competition between photographers and even between their subjects.
The amount of money fuelling the industry seems to have been its downfall. Increased competition led to an oversaturated market with more content available than the print industry could sustain. This downward turn also occurred in tandem with the rise of the internet and the celebrity gossip blogs that quickly took the place of print magazines and began pumping out content 24/7. With the influx of available content and the ease with which it could be accessed, questions soon began to be raised regarding the safety and privacy of the subjects being consumed.
Of course, we all remember Britney Spears’ infamous meltdown. What was, of course, a very private moment for the singer turned into a public spectacle thanks to the photographers that constantly surrounded her. Unfortunately, Spears wasn’t the only celebrity forced into a dangerous situation. Reports of car crashes in Los Angeles became more frequent at the turn of the decade as celebrities tried to evade the paparazzi by any means necessary. At the time, a Los Angeles city council member suggested establishing minimum “personal safety zones” to protect celebrities; however, LAPD Chief William Bratton denied the idea, suggesting that existing laws were sufficient. Eventually, the California legislature would pass a law that re-enforced the existing laws with harsh penalties, including six months in jail and a $2500 fine for any photographer cited for driving recklessly in pursuit of a photo.
Paul Raef, the first photographer to be prosecuted under the law for speeding while in pursuit of Justin Beiber in 2012, appealed his conviction all the way to the California Supreme Court, arguing that the law violated freedom of the press protections. Raef’s appeal was eventually dismissed.
The next blow to the industry came in 2013 when a push was made for photographers to stop taking pictures of celebrities’ children. At the time, photos of children with celebrity parents were some of the highest-selling. However, it took stars such as Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner testifying before California lawmakers to make their claim for their children’s safety, as photographers began posting up outside of schools and playgrounds. The state legislature responded by passing broad anti-paparazzi legislation that made it a misdemeanor to “intentionally harass a child because of their parent’s profession.”
As lawmakers continued to deliver necessary laws, the industry obsessed with celebrity culture began to falter. However, the industry’s biggest blow has come with the rise and domination of social media. For some celebrities, the only way to beat the gossip blogs was to, in a sense, join them. As Instagram gained popularity, so did the idea of celebrities posting candid photos of themselves directly to their personal accounts and driving traffic to themselves. Unfortunately for some celebrities, this has proven to be a misstep. With photographers now desperate for content and the income that comes with it, celebrities are being sued for posting images of themselves to their social media accounts.
Celebrities including Jennifer Lopez, Gigi Hadid, Jessica Simpson, Khole Kardashian and most recently Ariana Grande have all been sued for posting pictures of themselves to their Instagram accounts. The problem? The pictures being posted were taken by photographers and were not licenced for personal use. In most cases, the celebrities are being sued for copyright infringement, while some, as is the case with Ariana Grande, are being held accountable for wrongful promotion. Grande posted a lifted picture from a photographer on the day of her “Sweetener” album release and posted it with the caption “happy sweetener day” to her 154 million followers. Because of this, the photographer claims the photo was used as promotion for the album and is seeking either the profits she earned from the photos or $25,000 for each photo, whichever of the two amounts is greater.
Unfortunately for the photographer, discerning profits made from an Instagram post is virtually impossible. However, with most of these cases, the law is on the side of the photographer. While it may seem counterintuitive that the subject of a photo can’t use it freely, law experts agree that photographers own the copyright to any photo they take, regardless of who is in it, so long as the photo was taken in a public space. Violating this copyright carries a steep fine of up to $150,000 for each violation. Although celebrities can argue that photographers are profiting off of their likeness, most cases have been settled out of court in the photographer’s favour.
One celebrity in particular has come up with a solution. Being the business and media mogul that she is, upon learning of issues arising from social media and copyright infringement, Kim Kardashian decided to hire her own personal photographer — essentially cutting out the paparazzi from the equation and allowing her to post images of herself as she pleases without worrying about copyright and licencing.
While some say that photographers are biting the hand that feeds them with these lawsuits, it is understandable that they would try to recoup the losses that changes in the industry have brought to their profession. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the ways in which media are spread and consumed has forced photographers to rethink their business strategy. Although suing celebrities for copyright infringement is proving to be lucrative for the time being, it is unlikely to provide a long-term solution. Instead, photographers would be wise to follow Kim Kardashian’s direction and work with celebrities directly if they hope to maintain a legal and monetary grip on society’s changing but continued obsession with celebrity culture.