Ask Author Law

Using Photos of People in a Coffee Table Book

April 24, 2015

Tags: Privacy, Right of Publicity, Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Journalism, Authors, Editorial Use of Photos

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: I was reviewing your website and was wondering if I have to be concerned with any legalities on my ORB (ORBS are spirits --deceased persons-- captured in photography) picture book prior to publishing.

The coffee table type picture book includes most of my own personal photography taken at family weddings and functions. For others who have shared their ORB pictures and spiritual captures, they have given me approval to use them.

As far as my own personal collection, do I need approvals from family members? I was thinking I would also keep the persons anonymous as I talk about the orbs in the pictures, with exception of when I include the actual picture of person who is deceased, as I do believe that was someone’s spirit captured in an orb.

A: What an interesting question! It raises three basic legal issues – copyright in the photos themselves and the rights of privacy and publicity for the subjects of the photos.

Photographs are copyrightable subject matter, and the copyright in them belongs by default to the photographer (legally the “author” or “claimant”) from the moment the photo is first captured in a tangible medium of expression (on film or digital medium). This means that you are the copyright owner of the photos you took yourself. You are, therefore, free to publish them without any worries about copyright infringement. As to the photos you obtained from others, you say that you have permission to share them. You need to confirm with those people whether they were the actual photographer because it’s the photographer -- not the subject-- who owns the copyright. Permission to use a photo in a publication is basically an implied license and is a defense against copyright infringement for all the photos where the actual photographers gave permission. If the “shared” photos were not shared by the actual photographers, however, you should track down the person who actually took the photo and obtain his or her permission to publish.

Subjects of the photos raise additional legal questions. Whether or not you need permission to include the individuals shown in the pictures depends on several factors. Editorial use of photos in newspapers, TV or online news coverage, magazines, and books is protected by the First Amendment and are generally free to publish, as long as an individual’s privacy is not being invaded. A book, (even if profitable) is considered to be editorial in nature. If you were using the photos to advertise or endorse a product, you would definitely need written consent from the living subjects, because they have a “right to publicity” for use of their name and image for commercial purposes. In your situation, your coffee table book is probably editorial rather than commercial in nature, so I would say that you don’t really need permission of the living subjects, provided none of them are celebrities and you are not invading their privacy.

A word of warning about privacy. There is no right to privacy for people in public places, but if the photos show subjects inside private homes or private yards, you should get their consent. Deceased persons – in this case the ORBS—do not have a right to privacy any longer, so you don’t need consent to include them – even in a private setting.

I’ve already said that your book is probably editorial in nature and therefore you don’t need to be concerned about the rights of publicity of the subjects. Most deceased individuals don’t have a right of publicity, but there are some exceptions for celebrities. Dead celebrities in some states (such as Tennessee and California) have a continuing right of publicity. Elvis Presley’s estate, for example, still controls the rights to commercial use of his name and image. So if any of your ORBS are famous, you should be careful not to use them to promote your book in commercial ways, such as putting their photos on ancillary materials like coffee mugs or t-shirts.