Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Can I Use a Photograph of Scarlett Johansson on the Cover of My E-Book?

Let's say I've written a memoir that I'm planning to self-publish. And let's say I've also decided that, on my book cover, it would be great to use a dazzling photograph of Scarlett Johansson that I've licensed from a stock photo service, such as Getty Images.  Alas, Ms. Johansson has no connection whatsoever to me or my book, but, hey, her picture on the cover certainly can't hurt my sales.

Can I -- and can you -- lawfully use a picture of an individual on a book cover without his or her permission?  It depends.

There are two separate legal considerations in publishing a photograph of a person, regardless of whether he or she is a celebrity.  

First, you must consider the rights of the photographer who ordinarily owns a copyright in the photographs that he takes.  Assuming that an image is not in the public domain, you will need the photographer's permission (or the permission of the photographer's authorized agent or of a stock photo service that controls the rights, etc.) to use the photograph for any purpose anywhere in your book.  By all means, don't simply copy and re-purpose a photograph from the Internet; that would almost surely be a copyright infringement.  (Of course, if you snap a photograph yourself you are, with some exceptions, presumably the copyright owner.)

But obtaining the necessary copyright clearance may not be enough.

Second, you must consider the rights of any identifiable persons depicted in the photographs. Those rights may, in turn, depend upon the context in which the photograph is to be used. 

A person's right to control the use of her own image (as well as certain other aspects of her persona, such as name and voice) is called the right of publicity.  There is no federal right-of-publicity statute in the United States, although some advocates favor such legislation. Instead, the right of publicity is governed by state law.  The law varies considerably from state to state, but two general principles apply.  First, the use of the image of a living person in advertising or for promotional purposes, without written permission, is unlawful almost everywhere in the United States.  So, obviously, SodaStream could not have aired this politically controversial commercial without Scarlett's written permission.  Second, consent from the subject of a photograph is not needed to use the picture in connection with genuine news and informational reports. For example, The Washington Post did not need Scarlett's permission to use her photograph in connection with this article concerning her appearance on the Colbert show.  Nor would her consent be needed to include her photograph in an informational work, such as an encyclopedia or this Wikipedia article about her. That said, there are countless uses that fall somewhere on the spectrum between a indisputably permissible editorial use and an indisputably impermissible advertising use.  To complicate matters further approximately 20 states hold that the right of publicity continues for some years after an individual's death, and is enforceable by the heirs of the deceased.

So what about putting Scarlet Johansson on my book cover?  Well, context is everything.  

First an easy case:  The courts have almost uniformly held that you can use a individual's picture, without his consent, on the cover of a book that is about him, e.g., on an unauthorized biography. (See, for example, this decision involving the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale.)  But my book is about me, not about Scarlett.

Another easy case: Singer-songwriter Tasleema Yasin successfully sued a publisher for using her photograph on the front cover of a novel entitled Baby Doll without her permission.  The court held that, because Ms. Yasin had no connection to the subject matter of the novel (indeed, her name wasn't even mentioned in it), the use of her photograph was “purely for marketing and trade purposes; solely as a means to attract customers and generate sales" and was therefore unlawful.  (See also Dorsey v. Black Pearl finding that R&B singer Marc Dorsey was likely to succeed on his claim that the unauthorized use of his photograph on the cover of novel was a violation of his right of publicity.)

But things can get tricky when the person depicted on a book cover has at least some tangential relation to the subject of the book.  For example, in Christianson v. Henry Holt, a waitress sued the publisher for the use of her photograph on the cover of the well-regarded book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, which dealt with the problems faced by the working poor.  The plaintiff had previously consented to to the use of her photograph in connection with a Fortune magazine article about "single mothers supporting their families on low-wage jobs," but she was not asked for permission to use her image on the book jacket published years later.  The publisher argued that the photograph had a reasonable connection to the book and therefore the right of publicity claim should be dismissed, but the court disagreed:
At no point is Plaintiff, her photo, or the restaurant where she appears ever part of the subject matter of the book. If Plaintiff or the restaurant where she appears had been mentioned even once in Nickle and Dimed then this Court might have doubts about this ruling. But this is not the case, and as a result, the book and the photo do not bear a reasonable relationship with each other.
Another court reached the opposite conclusion in a case with somewhat similar facts.  Dallesandro v. Henry Holt & Co., involved a book cover that depicted the plaintiff longshoreman in conversation with Father John Corridan, a priest who crusaded against corruption on the docks and was an inspiration for the film On the Waterfront. Even though Mr. Dallesandro wasn't mentioned in the text of the book, the court found that his picture was illustrative of a matter of genuine public interest, and therefore there was no violation of Mr. Dallesandro's right of publicity. The fact that the plaintiff was a longshoreman and had, in fact, spoken with Father Corridan was deemed sufficient to defeat the right of publicity claim.  However, it was a close call; one of the three judges dissented, arguing that the connection between the photograph of Mr. Dallesandro and the subject matter of the book was too remote to justify using his image.

Keeping these general principles in mind, it would be risky business for me to use Scarlett Johansson's photograph on the cover of my memoir,  I don't have her consent and my only connection to her is having purchased tickets to four of her movies over the years (which I enjoyed but didn't mention in my [hypothetical] memoir).  Similarly, if you are planning to use a photograph of a person, living or dead, on your book cover, without written permission, it is prudent to ask a lawyer whether your cover might get you into hot water.

When photographs of people appear inside your book, they are less likely to give rise to legal problems because such uses are less likely to be deemed uses for advertising or promotional purposes.  But, even then, there should be some "real relationship" between the pictures and the content of your book.  (See the Finger v. Omni  Magazine case which liberally interprets the "real relationship" test under New York law.)

If you obtain a photograph from a stock photo house to use on your book cover, keep in mind that the license agreements often cover only the copyrights in the photographs.  If you're using the image on a book cover, you should insist upon seeing a copy of any applicable right of publicity release and read it carefully to make sure it allows for your intended use. And keep in mind that, while some stock photo houses provide indemnifications to their customers, those assurances may be limited to the amount of the license fee, which is woefully inadequate to compensate you in the event of a legal claim.

Finally, be careful not to state or imply that a person depicted on your book cover endorses or approves of your work, if that isn't true.  Misleading use of someone's name or likeness implicates other areas of the law, such as false advertising.  See, for example, Rostropovich v. Koch Int’l Corp., 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1609 (S.D.N.Y. 1995), in which cellist Mstislav Rostropovich claimed that the use of his likeness on CDs featuring his early performances would cause consumers to mistakenly believe he had endorsed the CDs.

The right of publicity has many nuances. Edward Rosenthal's good lawyerly discussion of the law can be found here. A less detailed summary from the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard can be found here.  Professor Jennifer Rothman's state-by-state "roadmap" can be found here.  Some, but by no means all, other countries recognize rights of publicity, also known as "personality rights"; see a Wikipedia listing here.

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