Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Celebrities on clothing: Don't sue me, please!

Dear Rich: I was wondering, what are the rules on using celebrities faces and images from magazines if you alter them? I am a graphic designer who likes to alter images and print them on clothing for sale. I really don't want to get sued. Before we address your legal issues, the Dear Rich staff would like to address your fear of being sued. Yes, being sued is a terrible experience involving a loss of money, an affront to your dignity, a waste of your time, and a massive carbon footprint (all of which is summarized on your recession-proof legal bill). On the other hand, the statistical chances of you being sued for reproducing and selling a few hundred t-shirts with silkscreens of a celebrity is pretty slim. You may be threatened and you may receive cease and desist letters -- and you may even have to destroy your t-shirt stock -- but it's statistically unlikely you will be dragged into court unless you are selling thousands of shirts and you refuse to stop (or to settle). Keep in mind that businesspeople sue primarily based on a cost-benefit analysis related to the likelihood of compensation and success. (By the way, the above opinion is not official advice, just an observation derived from anecdotal evidence.)

Ennnyway. Sorry, to bore you with all that. As for the legal rules regarding the reproduction of celebrity images on clothing: (1) Celebrities control how their images or names are used on merchandise based on a principle known as the right of publicity. And unless you're modifying the image so much that the celebrity is unrecognizable (or you have the celebrity's authorization), you are violating the law. (2) The owner of copyright for the photo (usually the photographer) may also have a claim against you under copyright law. As you may know from the news, the measurement of infringement (and fair use) for altered photos is not always clear.