The latest celebrity to be sued by a paparazzi photographer? Victoria Beckham. The former Spice Girl-turned-fashion figure is on the receiving end of a new copyright infringement lawsuit after posting a photo of herself to her Instagram story this summer. According to the complaint that counsel for Felipe Ramales filed in a New York federal court on Tuesday, Beckham did not seek the photographer’s “permission or consent” before posting the image of herself on her Instagram account nor did she – or her corporate entities, Victoria Beckham INC. and VB Beauty LLC – pay to license it.
As Ramales – a New York-based professional photographer “in the business of licensing his photographs to online and print media for a fee” – asserts in his complaint, the case at hand “arises out of [Beckham’s] unauthorized reproduction and public display of a copyrighted photograph of singer and fashion designer Victoria Beckham, owned and registered by [him].” Beckham’s use of the May 2019-shot image – which follows from Ramales’ licensing of the photo to outlets, such as the Daily Mail – was for the purpose of “promot[ing] their brand,” the photographer asserts, since Beckham was wearing a floral look from her eponymous label, which she linked to in the post to enable her followers to “shop the look.”
With the forgoing mind, Ramales has set forth a claim of copyright infringement against Beckham and her related entities and is seeking monetary damages “up to $150,000 per work infringed” plus “attorney’s fees and full costs.”
The photographer is the latest in a long list of paparazzi to file suit over the past couple of years against celebrities and fashion brands – from model Gigi Hadid and pop star Ariana Grande to companies like Versace, Marc Jacobs, Off-White-related entity Canary Yellow LLC, and Alexander Wang – for their unauthorized usage of copyright-protected imagery.
The growing number of paparazzi v. brand/celebrity cases tend to fit neatly within the confines of copyright law, since the individuals behind the creation of the photos at issue – the paparazzi photographers – are the exclusive holders of the copyrights in the photos, regardless of whether the subjects consent to such images or not. Yet, they prove compelling at least in part because of the questions and commentary that comes in response to litigation that centers on individuals posting photos of themselves that were taken in at least some cases without their explicit consent.
With this in mind, discussions surrounding the rise of such suits have included calls for reform to modernize the 43-year old Copyright Act, at least in part because “the concept of ‘ownership’ of images and videos is shifting, and will shift further, as everyday people find themselves in photos all the time, taken by people they know and don't know, with and without their permission,” Athul K. Acharya, a public interest attorney at BraunHagey & Borden, told TFL.
Others, such as New York University Law professor Christopher Sprigman, who specializes in copyright law, say that such drastic action is not necessary. Instead of some sweeping reform to the Copyright Act, “What we really need is for a good defense lawyer to argue the equities – namely, that the photographer is figuratively biting the hand that feeds him – and a good judge to find, on that basis, that minimal statutory damages are due [assuming the photo is registered], and that the plaintiff should not recover attorney’s fees.” Something like that, he says, “would put an end to these suits right quick, considering that actual damages in these cases tend to be scant and difficult to prove.”
Still yet, this string of paparazzi v. celebrity lawsuits proves interesting because of the right of publicity questions that seep into the equation. Although, it is worth noting that an argument based on the right of publicity – the state-specific legal doctrine that gives individuals the ability to prevent others from commercially exploiting their names and/or likenesses without permission – might not be terribly fruitful for these celebs since, as attorney David Shein told TFL, in the eyes of the First Amendment, the sale of newsworthy images, including ones of celebrities, to media outlets likely is not a “commercial use,” which is a core element in a right of publicity argument.
UPDATED (September 18, 2019): One day after the suit was filed, counsel for Ramales filed to voluntarily dismiss the suit without prejudice, meaning that the same case can be filed again in the future, and suggesting that the parties settled the case out of court.
*The case is Felipe Ramales v. Victoria Beckham Inc., VB Beauty (US) LLC, and Victoria Beckham, 1:19-cv-08650 (SDNY).