Celebrity Wedding Photo Fights Then and Now: Own the Copyrights

On June 27, 1993, two talented people were married north of Indianapolis and drove to what was called Deer Creek Music Center for a concert by one of them. The couple was Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. He put on a great show and she appeared on stage in her wedding gown. Despite strict measures by the venue to prevent photography, a stringer from People magazine got his gear inside and jumped up to take photos from one of the front rows. The film was seized and an emergency hearing held in federal court two days later.

On January 3, 2007, two talented people were married in Las Vegas, and went on with their lives keeping the wedding a secret even from their own families. The couple was Noelia Lorenzo Monge and Jorge Reynoso. Three photographs of the ceremony and three of their wedding night were taken at their request and kept private until a driver found a memory chip with the photos and they were sold to TVNotas magazine. When the magazine blew the couple’s cover by publishing the photos in 2009, they got copyright registrations and sued in federal court.

The Julia Roberts / Lyle Lovett wedding photo dispute ended in a blink. The court saw it as privacy versus First Amendment, and People got the shots. Time Inc. and Steve Kagan v. Sand Creek Partners, L.P., 825 F.Supp. 210 (S.D.Ind. 1993). Questions about the photographer entering the private venue and violating its photography ban were not reached.

The  Noelia / Reynoso wedding dispute isn’t over after three years, but the Ninth Circuit’s decision two weeks ago may bring it to a quick conclusion. The court saw it as copyright ownership of unpublished works versus fair use, and entirely rejected the magazine’s defense, setting up a damages trial or settlement.  Noelia Lorenzo Monge and Jorge Reynoso v. Maya Magazines, Inc., Nos. 10-56710 & 11-55483 (9th Cir. August 14, 2012).

Each celebrity couple tried to control what the world knew and saw about their weddings. Roberts / Lovett lost and Noelia / Reynoso won. The key difference is that the winning couple owned copyrights in the photos in dispute and the losing couple did not.

Interestingly, People had no photographs from the wedding itself while TVNotas had 100% of them. After the ruling, Roberts / Lovett provided their wedding photos which graced People’s cover. TVNotas simply published the 100%.

The most striking legal difference in the two decisions is the treatment of “newsworthiness” in the context of either privacy rights or copyrights.

The court in Indianapolis with just two days to rule said “‘Newsworthiness’ is a First Amendment, Freedom of Press, interest and is to be broadly construed.” Accordingly, newsworthiness “has primacy over any privacy rights which Lovett may have..” The newsworthiness came from the public figure status of the couple and “their appearance on stage before thousands of people on the day of their highly publicized but theretofore unannounced and private wedding ceremony…”

The court in San Francisco had three years of litigation behind its decision and a major section is devoted to newsworthiness. After a meticulous exploration, it memorably summarizes:  “Waving the news reporting flag is not a get out of jail free card in the copyright arena.” The court explains that although the secret wedding was being revealed as news, the couple’s photos were not indispensable to report the news facts. The magazine could have obtained a marriage certificate. Even if needed to make the marriage report credible, one photo would have been enough. There was no news reporting need to publish all six.

As the owner of copyrights in unpublished works, Noelia had the right to decide when, if ever, to publish them. That’s what the magazine took away by publishing the photos. But this legal protection for keeping a work private is not about privacy. The court says “We pointedly note that we address the unpublished status of the photos only under copyright principles, not privacy law.”

 The irony is that copyrights in unpublished photos trumped newsworthiness and gave privacy protection in fact to Noelia / Reynoso while perimeter fences, security guards, and bag searches   were trumped by newsworthiness to deny privacy protection to Roberts / Lovett. The moral is:  own the copyrights.

About Craig Pinkus

Craig Pinkus is a partner in the Intellectual Property Group. He also is a member of the Litigation and the Sports, Entertainment and Media Groups. He assists clients with a broad range of disputes and transactions involving all areas of intellectual property, entertainment, and other complex business arrangements. He has conducted trials and arbitrations throughout the United States and has argued appeals before the Seventh, Sixth and Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, the Indiana appellate courts, and United States Supreme Court.
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