In 1996, the mostly still unknown Jay-Z was preparing to launch his first studio album: Reasonable Doubt — an album that has since been recognized as one of the greatest of all time.
The photoshoot for this debut album was done by the now well-recognized photographer Jonathan Mannion. Reasonable Doubt was the photographer’s first major album credit, but thanks to its success; it was far from the last; Mannion shot hundreds of album covers, including those of Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, and Kendrick Lamar.
Jay-Z filed a lawsuit in June against Mannion, which accused him of exploiting the rapper’s image and likeness without consent. The lawsuit also asserts that Mannion sold prints of the photographs for thousands of dollars without permission. Additionally, it states that the rapper “never gave Mannion permission to resell any of the images … nor did [he] authorize Mannion to use his name, likeness, identity, or persona for any purpose.”
First and foremost, it is illegal to use somebody’s public image for commercial gain without explicit consent. Musicians, for example, own the right to control their own image and monetize it at their own discretion.
Mannion never asked Jay-Z’s team to enter a license or agreement for what he could and couldn’t do with the images he had. Furthermore, although Mannion took the photographs himself, Jay-Z still has the right to publicity as the subject of the images. In other words, the subject of a published image has the authority to control what happens to it and how it is monetized, if at all.
Having broken statutory law and Jay-Z’s common law right to publicity, it is expected that the rapper will come out on top.
Image rights disputes don’t just happen to 23-time Grammy winners.
In 2010, Montana photographer Sean Heavey daringly took photographs of a spectacular supercell thunderstorm, following it across the state to do so.
Flash forward 8 years. Heavey was at home, watching Netflix’s top-rated and successful original series Stranger Things. When a picturesque storm appeared on the screen, Heavey couldn’t help but notice how familiar it looked. Suspecting the worst, Heavey watched a documentary on the show’s making, and his suspicions were soon confirmed: Netflix had used his photograph in their show without ever having contacted him.
Heavey explained that the makers of Stranger Things had saved the photograph from Google and artificially added a foreground to the image. Netflix responded to his accusations by adamantly asserting that Mother Nature can’t be copyrighted.
Heavey was contacted by Pixsy, a company that specializes in rights disputes over photography. They found 6 more occasions on which Netflix used Heavey’s thunderstorm photo without a license.
In the US, photographs are items of intellectual property and are protected by copyright law. So although Heavey’s images don’t contain himself, they still belong to him; Netflix had no right to use them in their show without acquiring a license.
When we think of rights management, we typically think of films, TV shows, and music. But Jay-Z’s lawsuit against his photographer as well as Heavey’s confrontation with Netflix is a reminder that even content as seemingly straightforward as images need their rights monitored carefully — and that doing so poorly can have dire consequences.