What is the copyright law surrounding Ellen's famous Oscars group selfie?


If the photo was taken on her own phone, it’s hers.

Try again. American copyright laws say If I let someone use my camera to take a photo that they compose and create, it’s theirs. The composition and shutter is the thing, not the subject or camera ownership.


Everyone who attends the Academy Awards has already given their permission to be photographed for still and video media. Everyone attending the show, especially those nominated for the top-tier of awards (acting, directing, producing and best picture) all understand the marketing purpose of the show - how much of a difference even being nominated makes to the box office receipts for their respective films.

It is very likely that Degeneres’ use of the Samsung product (not even her personal phone, she posted to Twitter from the show to her own account using an iPhone) to capture the “selfie” was part of a planned cross-promotional activity for Samsung. Most everyone involved in the photo likely knew exactly what was going to happen and they probably discussed it in advance during rehearsal.

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Not sure Liza Minelli knew.

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The question is not one of image rights, which is what your first paragraph is about, but who actually owns the image.

Since Canon or Nikon do not own all the images from users, the manufacturer is a moot point unless they paid Cooper directly to do work for hire for them. Even rehearsed, Cooper still has a good leg to stand on if he should want to pursue a claim for ownership.

All in all, this article is a very good example of how complicated copyright is and why it behooves users to know what rights they give up on either side of the lens.

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Not really. If you hand someone your camera and ask someone to take a photo for you, the tacit agreement is that you are merely providing the service of pressing the button. Hundreds of millions of tourists every year know this, plenty of precedent there.

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I’m a little surprised by this from the link:

Update: Eric Spiegelman, himself an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, presents the DeGeneres case for sole ownership.

Ellen Degeneres came up with the idea for the selfie and proceeded to execute it. In the process of producing the selfie, it became apparent that she needed a crew, and Bradley Cooper took in upon himself to be this photographer. Ellen Degeneres, of course, consented to his involvement. At that moment, the services of Bradley Cooper were employed by Ellen Degeneres for some non-financial compensation (the added fame of being a part of Hollywood history, perhaps).

Typically if you hire a contractor the copyright belongs to the contractor absent a specific written contract to the contrary. Walmart found out the hard way when they fired their decades long audivisual contractor, who then decided to make up for the lost work by selling the videos they recorded at Walmart meetings. Turns out Walmart didn’t have copyright, the audiovisual company had copyright. I’d think the same would apply to Bradly Cooper. He was not an employee, not even an implied one, at best he could have been an implied contractor. Were he paid he would have gotten a 1099, not a W-2. So, not an employee. And copyright transfers have to be written, not implied or oral contracts.

But, IANAL, so who knows…

Tacit agreement, true. But should it come down to it in a court of law (say something news worthy turns out to be happening in the background of the photo) the person asked to take the photo owns the copyright, or at the very least, co-owns it.

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Many a lawsuit has been created over tacit agreement. Again, this is all a moot point, as Cooper is unlikely to want to pursue ownership the way that many tourists do not want to pursue ownership, but the ownership rights are still with the shutter operator.

Nope. This is wrong. The person that pushes the shutter owns it. This is why assistants will set up the shot but the high paid photographer gets the credit. It’s also, I suppose, why camera rental companies aren’t the largest photo rights holders in the world.

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It was a commercial for Samsung, so they would own it, not the employees who carried it out.

Again, unless Cooper was contracted directly with Samsung, he has very good standing to own the image.

Have any of you arguing that Cooper has no rights to this actually read the article? There’s, like, actual lawyers commenting on various points of actual, like, law. Here’s part of it just for you:

Could Samsung actually own the photo?

Probably not, according to Kirschner. Let’s say there was a contract between the Academy or DeGeneres and the phone company. “If Samsung had an agreement with Ellen that they would exclusively own the rights to the photo, that may not then apply to Bradley,” he said. So if Samsung tried to enforce an agreement with Ellen (which, again, may not exist), Cooper could again muck up the works, since he’s exempt from that agreement, having not, you know, agreed to it. Samsung can’t say “we have copyright over all pictures taken on this device.”


Who’s the chubby guy next to Julia Roberts? It looks like James Corden but I doubt it’s him…

Even if the idea of this photo was planned (likely), the composition wasn’t - I think they’d rather have had more Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie, and less random brothers.

That’s why all those cameramen and DPs are filthy rich on royalties from Hollywood movies. Joking, but in this case, wouldn’t the Academy have some kind of global rights to whatever goes on at its show, including production of product placement? I’d be surprised if there weren’t some kind of agreement to that effect with the participants in the event.

“camera rental companies aren’t the largest photo rights holders in the world.”

when you rent a camera, the agreement is that it is your while you have rented it and what you shoot with it is hence yours as well.

You are possibly confusing image rights (how a celebrity’s visual appearance can be used to sell something) with copyright rights (who actually owns a photograph). The Academy definitely has product placement rights, but even if Samsung hired Ellen to take a photo at the show, that agreement would not have covered Bradley Cooper who was the person who actually took the photo.

If I go to the Oscars and I use my personal phone to take a photo of the event of myself, the Academy instantly owns it? What a horrible precedent that would be. You wouldn’t own a photo from a concert, sporting event, friend’s house, private sidewalk in a public place (Rockefeller Center), it would be a legal nightmare.

The artist who composed and took the image is the owner. That is the way the law has been written and decided through tons of previous cases. Even fair-use derivative works from photos do not get a free pass anymore because photographic rights are so held so strongly.

Cameramen are for-hire from the get-go. There are agreements that are signed and their rights are waived. Until the Academy comes forward with a signed agreement from Cooper, he would legally stand a very good chance of winning any court battle regarding owning that image.

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when you rent a camera, the agreement is that it is your while you have rented it and what you shoot with it is hence yours as well.

Copyright law says that what you shoot with the camera is yours. I suppose you could put that in a camera rental agreement, but it would be totally redundant to do so, like putting the same in to a pencil rental agreement, that whatever you write with the pencil is your copyright.

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If I go to the Oscars and I use my personal phone to take a photo of the event of myself, the Academy instantly owns it? What a horrible precedent that would be.

Well, actually, there have been cases where event tickets contained a contract claiming that in exchange for entrance to the event, the event company got copyright of your photos. But that is a specific attempt to do so via a written contract, not a default.

It would be possible for the The Academy to claim to own the copyright on Ellen’s selfie, based on contracts in the entrance tickets (if they have any). But that seems unlikely given that the audience consists not only of actors and directors, but also producers, who, one would think, might be less that happy about signing copyright on their own cell phone photos to The Academy.

Exactly. Image rights control is probably the main reason why they just try and prevent photos from being taken at events in the first place.