Rihanna and Copyright Infringement

This Fashion Law Matters article originally appeared on the Beale Street Chic blog on December 2, 2011.

Fashion designers and stylists often use props as a critical element in showcasing fashion. It is not surprising to see food, animals, furniture or industrial pieces in a fashion layout. But there are legalities to consider when selecting props as recording artist, Rihanna, recently discovered.

David LaChapelle is a photographer known for his surreal pictures of celebrities and distinct photographic style. One of LaChapelle’s photographs—a striped room with a red afro wig—is shown above on the right. The photograph on the left shows a similar scene from Rihanna’s “S&M” video. (Also note the copyright notices in the left hand corner of both photographs)!

Pictorial or visual works that are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office give the copyright owner important rights. Among these is the copyright owner’s exclusive right to reproduce the work or prepare derivative works. LaChapelle sued Rihanna and Def Jam Records for copyright infringement for the unauthorized use of several poses, lighting, wardrobe and props in the “S&M” video. LaChapelle argued that the video was “directly derived from and substantially similar” to 8 photographs that he created.

As shown above, the “S&M” video director did not copy every color, pose or detail from LaChapelle’s photograph. Nonetheless, the court ruled that the copyright infringement claim was “successfully alleged.” Based on the court’s ruling in favor of LaChapelle, Rihanna and Def Jam quickly settled.

To use a copyrighted work, permission must be granted from the copyright owner. Without permission, the infringing party (Rihanna) may have to defend a copyright infringement lawsuit. In this case, LaChapelle asked for $1 million in damages. While the exact amount of his settlement was not revealed, LaChapelle was quoted as being “very happy” with the settlement. There are many lessons learned from this lawsuit, but the overriding lesson is quite simple: “It is better to ask permission rather than forgiveness.” If not, forgiveness may cost you a bundle!

Legal Disclaimer: Fashion Law Matters is not intended to serve as legal or other advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.

PWK Law 



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