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Do celebrities own their own images?

Philip Hensher
Wednesday 12 February 2003 01:00 GMT

The defining moment of the Catherine Zeta-Jones/ Michael Douglas law suit against Hello! magazine came, surely, when a lawyer superciliously observed that no one offered him a million quid to publish photographs of his wedding. Ms Zeta Jones looked him up and down icily, and said: "Yes. I can understand that."

One's soft spot for Catherine Zeta Jones is partly to do with her talent and her wonderful, old-fashioned glamour, but mostly for her hard-headedness as a businesswoman. She is determined to make the most of her considerable assets, something no one should criticise her for.

The history of her career resembles a military campaign in which no prisoners are taken; the luck of being thrust into the limelight at 15 as the second understudy in 42nd Street when the other two fell ill (it had to be 42nd Street, of course), followed by a major role on British television. A lengthy period of hard graft in Hollywood, a part in a terrible film, so that everyone could see that she was the best thing in it, and then onwards, effortlessly, to the top of the tree. She was lucky, along the way, to fall in love with Michael Douglas – and anyone can see that she does genuinely love him – but the whole career has gone perfectly to plan.

The law suit, on the other hand, is not quite being conducted along the lines that you feel she would prefer, and she is being obliged to use a number of fairly spurious arguments in order to achieve a necessary end. In brief, the rights to photograph the Douglas/Zeta Jones wedding were sold to one celebrity magazine, OK!, with the condition that the couple maintain full control over the published images. Another magazine, Hello!, having been defeated in the bidding war, smuggled a clandestine photographer into the reception and subsequently published some unauthorised images.

The argument as presented in court is pretty obviously not the real one. The couple are claiming emotional distress at this invasion of privacy, despite the fact that they had already accepted that the event would be covered by the press, and indeed sought to gain financial advantage by allowing their privacy to be invaded. That is pretty well the only argument open to them, but it is not quite the real issue.

In reality, what we are discussing here is copyright. It is universally accepted that writers, artists, and film-makers maintain control and ownership of their products. Those are their assets in the market-place, and if anyone sought to reproduce or exploit them without the owner's consent and without reimbursing them properly, they would be dealt with very simply and sharply. In the case of actors and "celebrities" of the more nebulous sort, the "product" that they have to sell is not so clearly defined; it is simply themselves, and their own image. Over that, the law offers very few ways to maintain control, even though it is clear that images from an actor's private life have a value in the marketplace that derives not from the photographer's skill, but from the subject's status.

This, however, is something almost impossible to change. The copyright in a casual photograph of a person cannot be assigned to the subject, for obvious reasons, and there is no way of arguing on these terms in the case of the Douglas/Zeta Jones marriage; hence the not very convincing claims made of the deep emotional distress that was caused by these stolen photographs.

But it does seem to me that the couple acted entirely reasonably, and with a very careful assessment of the situation. Clearly, their wedding was going to be of enormous interest to the press; equally clearly, the images that resulted were going to be significant assets to their careers, and in a sense their property. Rather than attempting to maintain complete privacy through impossible levels of security, they decided to have limited privacy and a limited media access, and to control and exploit the images.

I don't think there's anything at all wrong with that; it seems entirely rational. Anyone chooses what photographs they are going to stick in the family album, and would choose with much more care if the photographs are likely to be seen by strangers. The alternative, in this case, was to get married in the atmosphere of a siege, and I imagine they thought that by issuing limited, approved photographs on licence, they could avoid the worst excesses of the paparazzi.

In the event, it didn't work, but they were trying to control an impossible situation. What is absolutely clear is that from no point of view could this be seen as a couple trying to make as much money as possible from their wedding. Rather, they were hoping that a closely controlled deal with the press would allow them to maintain some measure of privacy, and to go on feeling that their wedding, in the most important sense, belonged to them – surely anyone can sympathise with that.

The problem is trying to frame the law of copyright, which is what this is really about, so as to acknowledge the way that anyone, even celebrities, will want their lives to appear to strangers.

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