Actress Sues Corbis to Shut Down Online Marketing of Celebrity Images

by David Walker

© Scott Kirkland / Retna Ltd. / Corbis
This image of actress Shirley Jones, shot February 16, 2010, is one of several cited as evidence in Jones' claim that Corbis is violating her rights of publicity.

Shirley Jones, the actress who played the mom on the 70s TV show The Partridge Family, has filed a lawsuit against Corbis that, if successful, could make it much harder for photo agencies and photographers to market celebrity images online.

Jones has charged the agency with violating her publicity rights under California law. The law prohibits the use of anyone's name or likeness without permission for commercial gain. Typically, that applies to advertising use of images, preventing marketers from implying celebrity endorsement of a product or service without permission. (Editorial uses are exempt.)

Jones is arguing that by displaying her image on its database, and using her name to facilitate customer searches of that database, Corbis is gaining commercially from her name and likeness without her permission. She is seeking class-action status for her claim, so other celebrities can join the lawsuit.

It is the third time the agency has been sued for displaying images of celebrities without permission in its online database.

The other two claims--the first filed in Illinois, the second in California--were thrown out of court, and Corbis describes all three claims as "frivolous and without merit." But the last claim, filed in 2009 by actress Anna Maria Alberghetti and singer Bonnie Pointer of the Pointer Sisters, failed on a technicality. Corbis had asked the court to throw that case out on the grounds that the agency was within its rights to display the plaintiffs' image under Copyright and First Amendment laws. Those are federal laws which trump California's right of privacy and publicity laws.

In an initial victory for Alberghetti and Pointer, the court rejected Corbis's motion and said the case could proceed to trial. Several months later, Corbis managed to get the suit thrown out on the grounds that the statute of limitations for the claims had expired.

In the Jones case--which is being heard in the same federal court as the Alberghetti case--Corbis is once again claiming it is within its rights under Copyright and First Amendment laws. Statute of limitations probably won't be an issue, because the images on which Jones has based her claim were shot in 2010.

A Corbis spokesperson says the Alberghetti case was not thrown out on a mere technicality: The court determined that the agency had done nothing wrong, he says. He adds that Alberghetti and Pointer were ordered to reimburse Corbis $219,000 for its legal expenses--a penalty judges impose only on plaintiffs when their claims are blatantly frivolous.

He went on to equate the agency's display of celebrity images on its database to the editorial uses of the images in newspapers and magazines. If the Jones claim is validated by the court, he says, "it would be a world without pictures. News photography as we know it would cease to exist" because any editorial user of images would have to get permission from the subject of every image published.

First, though, Corbis will have to convince the court that its display of images is, in fact, an editorial rather than a commercial use. If not, it could mean a tectonic shift for agencies (and photographers) that market celebrity images. They might not be able to promote celebrity images openly; instead, they'd have to wait for clients to submit requests. In the Alberghetti case, the court left the door open for the argument that the Corbis database is a commerial use, not an editorial one.

No doubt that is why the same lawyer is back to test the argument with another client: Shirley Jones.

Stay tuned.

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