The Legal Issues Behind Oscar Selfie

If you weren’t one of the millions who retweeted Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres’ star-studded selfie Sunday night, surely you’ve seen it.

Unavoidable on social media sites, the photo shows gowned and tuxedoed celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’o, all standing cheek-to-jowl mid-ceremony.

The candid cellphone snapshot also became the most retweeted post in Twitter history—more than 3 million times.

Just who owns the copyright to the history making photo, just may surprise you.

It was taken during the Oscars on a Samsung smart phone presumably given to DeGeneres as a marketing promotion.

But the finger on the shutter button belonged to best supporting actor nominee Cooper.

An article posted March 3 on The Wire’s website explores the question of ownership more thoroughly:

According to Paul Colford of the Associated Press, who spoke with The Wire by phone, the AP simply asked DeGeneres for permission to use the photo, and it was granted. “We reached out to her staff and asked for permission to use her photo,” Colford said, adding that they “were allowed to use it for editorial purposes.” The agency wrote a quick blog post about it saying exactly that: “Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres granted The Associated Press the rights for the editorial use…”

The problem, according to Los Angeles-area entertainment lawyer Ethan Kirschner, whom The Wire also spoke with, is that DeGeneres might not own the copyright on the photo. “Historically,” Kirschner told me, “it’s always been the person who pressed the shutter who’s technically the person that owns copyright.” In part, that’s a function of the age of the art of photography; the idea that everyone has his own camera in his pocket is a fairly new one. When the courts were trying to figure out who gets copyright, they “had to assign copyright to someone; they gave it to the person that literally pressed the button.”

Note to self: If you ever get a celebrity to join you for a selfie, make sure you’re the one with the finger on the shutter button.

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