Copied wrong: when celebrities infringe copyright

by Sahana Pal

Many internet users are under the misconception that if Google throws up an image without any express copyright restriction notice, the image is free for us to use.

A few weeks back, singer Harry Styles of One Direction fame apparently thought the same, and uploaded a photograph clicked by Brussels-based photographer Ezequiel Scagnetti in his Instagram channel, without any mention of the photographer’s name whatsoever. The photographer posted a message asking why his photograph was used without permission. However, what was surprising was that some of the 16 million “followers” of Harry Styles launched social media abuse at the photographer, and even went as far as to label Scagnetti a ‘jerk’ and a ‘prick’ while accusing him of being jealous and telling him to ‘shut your f****** mouth and be grateful’.[1]

Apart from being an example of our blind hero-worshipping tendencies that happily disregard all rhyme and reason, what this incident once again pointed to was the utter disregard that most people have about works of lesser known artists – especially when those are freely accessible on the internet without any explicit copyright sign. The sentiment was aptly put to words by a Stylesfan who said “How smart of you to not put a watermark on it and then get mad when people use your pictures” and was resonated by others.[2]

Scagnetti later posted a dignified response[3] in his Facebook page despite the “extremely aggressive, xenophobic, homophobic and racist insults” thrown his way and patiently explained how both himself as well as Styles “live of copyright”, as “every magazine you buy, every poster you see, every advertising photography you see, in internet or in the “real world”, a photographer is getting paid for copyright works, even if you are not taking the money from your pockets, somebody is doing it.” Shortly afterwards, Styles removed the image from his channel.

Some may argue that these celebrities are doing the lesser known artists a favour by bringing their work to limelight – which is certainly true in some cases, but perhaps the same objective can also be achieved with proper acknowledgement of the original sources instead of blatantly lifting them.

In fact the trend is most prominent in the music industry where every once in a while we find famous singers being accused of lifting a part or even whole of their songs from some relatively unknown singer or band. A few of these disputes invariably proceed to nasty lawsuits while many others choose to settle them outside court for undisclosed amounts.

It makes for an interesting discussion to think what might happen if the tables are turned. Can an ordinary person have the same set of rights against a celebrity if the celebrity uses his or her work without permission? Perhaps not. But it is time we start giving it a thought. After all copyright says not to copy, right?

[1] See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3443822/Photographer-bombarded-abuse-One-Direction-fans-criticised-Harry-Styles-posting-one-images-Instagram-without-crediting-him.html

[2] See http://petapixel.com/2016/02/11/photographer-harassed-online-calling-pop-star-stealing-photo/

[3] See https://www.facebook.com/EzequielScagnettiPhotography/photos/a.137522066305964.23866.105018119556359/1038775546180607/?type=3&comment_id=1040810522643776&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D

Sahana Pal

Assistant Editor, QMJIP