Chelsea Blackwell, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Fall 2013 Mass Communication Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the following essay in response to the question: You get a signed headshot from a celebrity. Your parents are so excited that they frame the picture and hang it in the lobby of their business. The celebrity’s lawyer demands that your parents take the picture down. What should they be able to do? What would you tell them to do?
The parents should be allowed to keep the picture of the celebrity with the signature up in the lobby of their business. When the celebrity signed the picture of their headshot, they acknowledged the fact that the picture would be given to the public domain. When getting a celebrity’s signature on their headshot, the new owner should be able to choose where they would like to put the picture on their own property. A business is a privately owned space as opposed to a public area, resulting in the fact that the parents should have the right to use personal property (the photo) as they see fit in their own real estate premise.
In this society the rights to the likeness/images of famous people are generally owned by whoever takes the photo (not the celebrity), but in this case that is not even the issue because she/he agreed to the photo by giving it out. This is not a copyright problem or a gross photo showing up in a gossip magazine, but instead a public photo that was distributed personally from the celebrity. The celebrity gave consent of the photo being public once the picture was signed. The new owner of the picture then has the rights to do what they want, whether that is to sell the picture on eBay or hang it in one’s room.
Since, the lawyer only demanded to have the picture taken down, and has not yet stated the words, “I will sue you if you do not take this picture down,” the parents should stick their ground and not remove the picture. Respect for the celebrity and legality are completely different, the celebrity already made the decision to make the photograph public. If the celebrity was so selective about where a picture is hung, then they should not have given it out in the first place because one never knows where it could show up. It is just like posting a picture on Facebook and later deciding to take it down. The problem is now the picture is out there forever and the person who put the picture out originally has no control of where it ends up. Just like the celebrity wanting to take back the picture after releasing it to the public: the consent of the picture going viral has already been given, and is inevitable where the picture is hung.
Chelsea Blackwell is a senior at Pepperdine University majoring in Media Production.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.