Monday, November 14, 2011

Can We Pilfer Celebrity Photos From IMDB?

Marlon Brando and James Baldwin
at 1963 March on Washington
Dear Rich: I wanted to post some photos for a celebrity article at my website. I’ve totally forgotten rules regarding photos. Can I pilfer IMDB and give an attribute to them or do I actually need their permission? Are there any secret public domain photos for celebs you know about? The copyright in celebrity photos is owned by the photographer (or by the agency to whom the photographer has transferred rights). We doubt whether the IMDB owns rights in all the photos it posts. Most likely, it's acquired those rights from the copyright holders. Often large celebrity-styled sites have ongoing 'subscription' deals with the companies that own photo rights such as Getty Images, PR Photos, PictureLux, and Shutterstock.
Operating without clearance. If you work for a website company, you're best off not jeopardizing your job by using unauthorized photos. The price you'll have to pay -- time, threats, lawsuits and payments -- if you're caught will far outweigh the licensing costs. If you're just posting a photo occasionally to your personal blog, you're less likely to get hassled but beware that photo agencies employ various means of tracking digital photo use including digital watermarks and embedded metadata.
Right of publicity. The rules we provide here are for websites where you are using the celebrity photo as a means of illustrating a story about the celebrity -- for example, you're discussing the funny side of Mike Tyson. If you are using the celebrity photo to imply endorsement of your site or to sell a product or service, you'll need the celebrity's permission as well.
Public domain photos. There are some public domain photos of celebrities. Try sites such as Wikimedia and read and observe the terms of the licenses. We're not so sure about so-called public domain photos at other sites -- that is, whether the photos are actually in the public domain. We typed in "public domain celebrity photos" and found mixed results (including pictures of Dwight Eisenhower and Britney Spears -- we don't want to think about the potential mash-up!). Of course photos taken by government employees -- for example, Elvis shaking hands with President Nixon (soon to be a movie) are in the PD. We think that's the case with our photo of Marlon Brando and James Baldwin (above) -- perhaps taken by an FBI agent. (And here's a related video made around the same time).