Jennifer O’Dell is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall and Denise Brunsdon is a social media writer and researcher.
Only one post remains on the Ridiculous Pictures of Celine Dion Tumblr and it is tellingly tagged “RIP” and “the dion effect.” Dion’s lawyers sent Nick Angiolillo, the New York blogger who runs the satirical Tumblr site which mocks silly photos of the singer, a cease and desist letter that led him to remove all the original posts.
Angiolillo claims that he is likely in the right, but that he doesn’t have the financial resources to engage counsel to respond; a wise choice on his part. There are a lot of issues at play here. Firstly, there may be a marked difference between the privacy rights and image/likeness sovereignty that can be demanded by an average citizen as opposed to a celebrity. Another issue here is practically a staple of many IP dilemmas: one nation’s protection may be different than another’s, but a URL is, for the most part, international.
What about the fact that they are in many cases the work of photographers? What would be most interesting to know is whether or not Angiolillo purchased the images and rights from photobanks or simply cribbed them off a Google search. If the latter, then Celine Dion’s cease and desist letter may only have been the first of several to arrive.
This brings us to an interesting point: attributing the rights of a photo to the photographer may be an outdated and archaic way of organizing online property. Indeed, now that one cultivates, fosters and monitors their online presence, one’s reputation seems to be more valuable than a single photo (or in this case, many). When photographs were primarily utilized by print sources, their regulation and distribution could be easily controlled by the Copyright Act. The world of Internet, however, leads one to ask: what are the rights of the subjects of these photos?
And finally, on the self-expression side, is there any sympathy for the fact that the blog was a genuine piece of tongue-in-cheek parody and not some kind of explosive and commercialized meme? A similar, but intensely more sophisticated site, Go Fug Yourself, has t-shirts and advertising and thus the bloggers in this case are making money by making fun of celebrities. Angiolillo’s grassroots site stands in remarked contrast.
Canadian courts have decidedly rejected the ‘parody defence’ of material subject to the Copyright Act. This case, however, would likely be subject to US standards of ‘fair use’, where using material for parody purposes has been established a legitimate form of use.
The ultimate lesson, however, is that in the early days of any legal arena with many suits pending and little precedent work – as most certainly the case with digital intellectual property and likeness law – those with the money to engage lawyers have the upper hand.