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Using Celebrities As Art Subjects

Published March 20, 2017 by Gail Daley

The Practical Artist’s Blog

http://www.thepracticalartist.com/the-practical-artists-blog.php

Have you ever been tempted to include a celebrity portrait in your art portfolio? Say you are entering a theme show and there is a celebrity whose very image just screams “I am this theme” i.e. General Patton or Pappy Boynton for WWII, Clint Eastwood or John Wayne for western art, Mohammed Ali, or an Olympic swim star for a sports theme, etc.? Well if you do use a celebrity without gaining the proper permissions, you could be sued for copyright violations under something called “the right of publicity” laws.

I became curious about this when a young artist used a drawing of a western icon as an entry in a local art show. I remembered reading about the case of a company being sued when they used President Obama’s image advertising a product on their billboard. I did some on-line investigating and found some interesting information. I discovered that public figures could actually copyright their image under some state copyright laws. This was especially informative to me because I had always thought that copyright was a federal law, not a state one. In my research, I discovered that both are true. In other words, you have federal copyright laws and the states can make additions to these laws that could affect us as visual artists. Copyright law may also vary from Country to Country.

What exactly are the rights copyright concerning publicity laws in regards to public figures? Public figures include politicians, celebrities, and any other person who has put themselves in the public spotlight or has greater than normal access to the media.

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personality_rights, defines these laws, as “The right of publicity, often called personality rights, is the right of an individual to control the commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness, or other unequivocal aspects of one’s identity. It is generally considered a property right as opposed to a personal right, and as such, the validity of the Right of Publicity can survive the death of the individual (to varying degrees depending on the jurisdiction). In the United States, the Right of Publicity is a state law based right, as opposed to federal based right, and recognition of the right can vary from state to state. The Celebrities Rights Act was passed in California in 1985 and it extended the personality rights for a celebrity to 70 years after their death.” There are other portions of California’s privacy laws to protect non-celebrity individuals but they not the subject of this blog and may be covered later.

Further reading tells me that even if your artistic source matter is a photograph taken by you of the celebrity or public figure in question, you might still be liable for violation of the right of publicity act if you invaded the privacy of the person in question to obtain the reference photo. An individual’s right of privacy or publicity is infringed when their name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness appears in a work of art and (a) can clearly be recognized as the subject shown in the work, (2) the subject has not consented to their image being used, and (3) the circumstances under which the photo was taken fit one of the following scenarios. Invading the subject’s privacy by encroaching into their private affairs. This covers events occurring in private or semi-private places: i.e. someone’s home or an invitation only event. Invading the subject’s privacy by the public disclosure of embarrassing facts not generally known. For instance if you take a photograph of a celebrity and then use the photo to paint them in the nude, or publish a photo of them embracing someone not their spouse this might be construed as being invasion of privacy. Invading the subject’s privacy by commercial appropriation. Using President Obama’s image to sell a product on the billboard was a clear example of this type of invasion.

Now I am not a lawyer, but common sense tells me why take the chance? Even if you win, a lawsuit is expensive and time-wasting and just being dragged into court over something like this could damage your reputation as an artist. If you would like more information on this subject, there are several good sites on the internet.

 

http://www.avvo.com/legal-answers/can-i-sell-my-own-artwork-depicting-a-celebrity–435063.html

This is a Case out of New York State concerning a sculpture using Cheryl Teigs legs in a sculpture. Recent verdicts expand artists’ rights in celebrity depiction …

http://www.owe.com/resources/legalities/7-issues-regarding-use-someones-likeness/

 

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