Earlier this year, Ellen DeGeneres briefly “broke” Twitter after tweeting a selfie full of celebrities, captured while she was hosting the Oscars. In an attempt to beat the record for most re-tweets ever, she enlisted megastars like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, and Jennifer Lawrence. Shortly after, Ellen gave the Associated Press permission to reproduce her selfie in a news article. But some have argued that the reproduction right – a right reserved to the copyright owner of a work – wasn’t necessarily Ellen’s to give. Technically, Bradley Cooper was the one who pressed the shutter button, evidently because he had the longest arms.
Copyright ownership vests in the author of a work, and in the case of photography the author is normally the person who literally creates the photograph by pressing the shutter. In some instances, however, the author is defined as the person directing the creative vision of the work, such as choosing the lighting, composition, costumes, and settings, without actually pressing the button.
So why does it matter? For the most part, it doesn’t. The selfies that you or I take are probably not going to be published in magazines or newspapers, unless newspapers are suddenly interested in my new haircut or in what you look like in the bathroom mirror. But Ellen’s selfie was the most retweeted picture of all time, and it was certainly newsworthy, at least in the days following the Academy Awards ceremony.
Another selfie has recently been the subject of some news as a wildlife photographer is claiming copyright ownership of a photograph technically taken by a monkey. In 2011, David Slater was photographing wildlife in Indonesia when a group of macaque monkeys started monkeying around with his camera and one of them snapped a selfie. After being posted online, the selfie ultimately made it to Wikipedia. When Slater demanded that it be removed from the site, Wikipedia claimed that he didn’t own copyright in the photo because he hadn’t captured it himself and because he hadn’t made any of the artistic choices in its creation. Though copyright lawyers battled over this question, the U.S. Copyright Office confirmed that the selfie would remain in the public domain because only humans can be authors of works, not monkeys.
But what if authorship of the selfies can’t be determined as easily? A few weeks ago, nude photographs of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Ariana Grande were leaked onto the internet and quickly spread like wildfire. I have not seen the photos – nor do I encourage any sort of invasion of privacy – but apparently some of them were not selfies at all.
When Lawrence’s lawyers demanded that 4chan – the online bulletin board that the photos were initially posted to – take down the photos, 4chan reportedly fired back that Lawrence herself might not have copyright ownership of the pictures that were physically captured by someone else. Though some of the hacked celebrities have insisted that the photos are fake, if Lawrence were to potentially reveal the name of her photographer, she would effectively be admitting that the photos are authentic. On the other hand, by not divulging, Lawrence loses her copyright ownership claim and would have to pursue other avenues for getting the pics taken down.
Most of us are guilty of taking selfies and quick snapshots of sunsets, puppies, and our food (#food #fooddiary #nom) without a moment’s pause. But you should think twice before handing your phone off to the person with the longest arms. If it’s a quick pic of your best duckface, you’re probably fine. But if it happens to be the next Pulitzer-prize winning photo or the most retweeted twitpic of all time, you may have just lost your copyright claim.