July 16, 2011

Celebrity Smackdown: Walking the Red Carpet Is Consent, Judge Says

A federal court in Los Angeles has dismissed actress Shirley Jones's right of publicity claims against Corbis, saying she effectively consented to having her picture taken at red carpet events--and to having those images displayed for the purpose of licensing the copyrights. After dismissing all the claims, the court ordered Jones to pay the photo agency's legal costs.

The ruling signals that celebrity photo agencies can carry on business as usual, without worry that celebrities can sue them for displaying images for license without consent. The court emphasized, however, that end users of the images--that is, customers of the agencies who license the copyrights--still have to get permission from the celebrities to use the images commercially. And so does Corbis, the court said, if it wants to use images of Jones to advertise other products or use the images for any purpose except to display them for license to others.

Jones sued Corbis in November, 2010 alleging that the company violated her rights of publicity by displaying her likeness on its web sites, and by enabling the public to view pictures of her by searching on her name. Jones argued that by doing that, Corbis was making commercial use of the photographs without her permission, in violation of California state law.

Corbis filed a motion for summary dismissal of the claims. Last week, the court finally threw out Jones's claim on the grounds that while she may not have explicitly consented to the distribution of images taken of her, she consented through her actions--simply by walking down the red carpet and allowing celebrity photographers to take pictures of her. It is the custom of those photographers to use and disseminate those images, which Jones conceded in her  testimony, US District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote in the ruling.

Jones didn't dispute that for at least one event where pictures of her were taken, a notice was posted to warn celebrities that by walking down the red carpet, they were consenting to being photographed. Moreover, she was aware that events organizers provide alternative entrances for celebrities who do not want to be photographed.

Jones "voluntarily posed on the red carpet for photographers who she knew would sell her likeness and name," Judge Wilson concluded.

Just as importantly, the court rejected Jones' argument that the rights of the photographers to distribute their images of her didn't extend to their agent, Corbis.

Jones "never indicated that her consent was contingent on the individual photographers distributing the photos themselves. In fact, the undisputed factual record shows that [Jones] knew and understood that photographers on the red carpet could employ third parties to assist them in distributing her photos," and she made no objection to that in the past, Judge Wilson wrote.
Corbis "merely maintains a modern-day version of the catalogues of sample images that would be hand-delivered to potential buyers in the past."

Judge Wilson concluded in his ruling, "No reasonable jury could find that Defendant’s display for this purpose was not consensual. Any other holding would require that individual photographers themselves market their photos or obtain express consent from each subject prior to utilizing a third party distributor to market their red carpet photos."

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