IPSA Updates 4: Copyright, the Oscars selfie that broke the internet, and its relevance to us

Contributed by: Benjamin Ho of the IPSA Core Team

Edited by: Lenon Ong of the IPSA Core Team

Copyright law fascinates me. Here’s why!

Picture this: you are now on your year-end vacation (as I was, before writing this). Imagine walking past an iconic monument and wanting a picture taken with it to show your friends. You then ask a fellow friend or random stranger to take a photo of/for you, with the monument. That person takes the photo. All is good, right? Well, not quite, and not always.

Usually, taken in an relaxed holiday setting, the intellectual property rights in a photo, will not trigger any significant issues – legal or otherwise. However, it is different when the stakes are higher – as in the case of the 86th Academy Awards (or the “2014 Oscars”) photo that broke Twitter (see attached picture) – and parties stand to make significant financial gains from its resultant publicity.

(Credit: Twitter – Ellen deGeneres, @TheEllenShow)

At its monumental telecast, television personality and host of the 2014 Oscars, Ellen DeGeneres posted on Twitter the now-world famous selfie featuring numerous celebrities like Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Spacey, and Jennifer Lawrence. This was obviously a very fun, innocuous selfie; but at the moment Bradley Cooper, who had the longest arms of the group – and therefore was the best person to take the selfie – pressed the camera shutter, numerous legal issues were created.

So – who exactly owns the photo? Was it Ellen, the 2014 Oscars’ show host who directed the other celebrities? Bradley, who took the picture? Or was it Samsung, the event sponsor who handed Ellen the Samsung phone for the event? 

Interestingly, absent any written agreement providing for ownership, because copyright law protects the works of authorship, and once Bradley snapped the selfie picture, Bradley became the rightful author of the photo – also its owner – with full ownership rights in its use and reproduction.

Here, while it is most likely that Samsung had an airtight agreement with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which would provide that ownership of any photos taken on the device – the then-latest Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – would belong to Samsung. Fortunately, and in a story with a happy ending, no legal actions were commenced by Samsung over the ownership of the selfie photo.

With this, the next time you post a photo taken by a stranger on your social media feed, bear in mind that you are using (and reproducing) his/her copyright! 


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