In 1996, as Jay-Z was preparing to release his debut album, he hired a photographer named Jonathan Mannion for a photo shoot. Mannion took hundreds of photos of the rapper, one of which he used for the 1996s cover Reasonable doubt. Now, twenty-five years later, Jay-Z is suing Mannion, claiming he exploited these images and illegally traded the superstar’s name for his own benefit.
Mannion, a big name in hip-hop photography who has worked with artists from Biggie Smalls to DJ Khaled, has a handful of photos of Jay-Z up for sale on his website, along with a shirt with Jay-Z’s name on it. According to the criminal complaint filed by Jay-Z’s Legal Department in a California court earlier this week, Mannion had to seek permission to sell these goods – something he never did. Jay-Z asked Mannion not to stop selling anything with his face or name on it, but he refused to do so, the complaint said. In addition, he allegedly asked Jay-Z to pay him “tens of millions of dollars” to stop selling the paintings and merch, the complaint said.
“To be clear, JAY-Z did not file this lawsuit to monetize these photos,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, he tries to prevent them from being monetized any further.”
However, that’s not all Jay-Z is looking for. He also goes after Mannion’s money, demanding a variety of claims for damages from the court, which can amount to a small fortune.
Jay-Z’s legal department declined to speak to VICE, and Mannion did not respond to a request for comment – but his legal representative did said Pitchfork that Mannion is “confident” that he is legally protected under the First Amendment.
“Mr. Mannion has created iconic images of Mr. Carter over the years and is proud that those images helped define the artist Jay-Z is today,” Mannion’s spokesman told Pitchfork. Mannion has the greatest respect for Mr. Carter and his work, and expects Mr. Carter to respect the rights of artists and creators alike who have helped him reach the heights to which he rose. “
From an outsider’s point of view, it’s hard to tell if Jay-Z’s suit has any real merit – or if it is instead an attempt by one of the world’s smartest and richest musicians to squeeze money out of his former co-worker. To better understand what’s really going on here, I called Dani Oliva, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer who is an expert on cases like this.
VICE: Can you explain the legal issues at the heart of this lawsuit?
Dani Oliva: You can’t use someone’s public image for commercial purposes – period – without a license or their permission. Artists, creators, filmmakers, actors, etc. have the right to control this image. And their ability to monetize it is extremely important. When Jay-Z’s image is widespread and everyone uses it without permission, when Jay-Z then wants to promote something – let’s say an upcoming album and he wants to make a deal with Fendi – it reduces the value of his brand and himself.
Assuming what Jay-Z claimed in this complaint is true, what exactly was Mannion doing wrong here?
You can take a picture of someone and you can own the copyright in the photo. But the person you take a picture of has rights. So if I were that photographer, it would be appropriate to say to the Jay-Z team, “Hey, can we get a license? That’s what I want to do. ”And if this photographer has a longstanding relationship with Jay-Z, it seems, chances are they found something out. But what the photographer did here was inappropriate. He takes these pictures that he has previously made and uses them – without permission, without obtaining a license – for goods, for commodities, for commercial gain. And on top of that, he is sublicensing, which means telling other people, “I have that right and I have permission to sublicense this to you. You can use this for anything you do. ”That is an extra layer of inappropriate behavior. And it violates both legal rights – a law is a written law passed by a legislature – and common law in California based on legal precedents that this photographer is breaking.
If Mannion were only selling prints and not merchandise, would he be legally protected?
No. Because although he has the copyright for the picture, the person depicted has the right to publish it. Photographers are constantly being hired to take pictures of music artists. And often it has a specific purpose. Unless you have that person’s express permission to take these photos and sell prints, you cannot do so.
I also understand the photographer. I understand that photographers have to make money from their work. But it would be like someone using your face on a t-shirt and selling it and not talking to you about it. Let’s just say that this person is your friend. And maybe you did some photo shoots for your bio or something. And then they start selling these shirts. It’s a similar situation.
In the lawsuit, Jay-Z and his attorneys allege Mannion asked tens of millions of dollars to stop selling these photos. I haven’t seen any evidence to support this claim. Can you unpack what could be going on?
Normally you would not attach any documents to a complaint. So let’s hypothetically assume that there is an email or letter between Mannion and Jay-Z’s team in which Mannion either submits his request himself or through his agent. This is usually not something you would see in a complaint. But what would happen is that once the complaint is responded to, documents would be presented that may or may already have Jay-Z’s legal team requesting this letter or request from Mannion.
Make yourself aware that often when you read a complaint that [one] Party may not have responded yet. So the other party can have a response document that contains additional facts. I am not entirely sure why [Mannion] would charge that amount. I could only guess: let’s say Jay-Z paid him a really low dollar amount to use this image he took as his album cover. Maybe that’s why he’s asking for this extra money. I’m not sure. I don’t think he would be entitled to.
How could Mannion and his Legal Department respond to this complaint and what arguments could they make on his behalf?
If I were to defend it, I would probably refer to the first amendment. I would say that in terms of artistic expression, the photographer uses the photo as an artistic work. Perhaps this photographer is an artist who exhibits his work in galleries and he exhibits it on his website for artistic expression purposes and sells himself as an artist rather than selling commercial goods.
Interestingly, it doesn’t usually take a lawsuit to prevent people from engaging in the actions that Mannion is [allegedly] to do. Usually it comes down to a letter of formal notice and people stop. So it is interesting to me that this has resulted in a full lawsuit. It makes me think Mannion must have some kind of defense. I can’t imagine anyone deliberately engaging in this activity with such a great artist without some kind of defense. Because the risk and harm are too high and the cost of litigation is way too high.
Just because of the lawsuit – which of course only tells one side of the story – who do you think would win this case if it went to court?
It is very, very clear – based on the complaint and the facts alleged – that Mannion violated both the law and Jay-Z’s general right to public disclosure. But you never know People can say what they want in a complaint, but you never know until you really dig yourself in.
Jay-Z applies for a restraining and permanent injunction against Mannion. Can you explain in lay language what this means and what it would force Mannion to do?
Jay-Z tells Mannion to stop using his name, likeness, identity and person – period. People are sometimes confused about what the word “injunction” means. It just means that either the court is making someone do or preventing someone from doing something. And because of the complaint, he will definitely get the injunction.
Jay-Z is making a variety of claims for damages. Do you think he will get it?
If all of the allegations are true, I think Jay-Z will definitely receive damages. If Mannion has been in this business for a very long time and has made a lot of money, it will be quite a lot of money. I believe millions. There will be so much money that I think it will probably be sorted out. It won’t lead to a full negotiation.
To an outsider, this suit may seem like an exercise in hitting. Jay-Z is one of the richest musicians in the world. Mannion is a celebrated photographer, but by and large few people have ever heard of him. Jay-Z is not only trying to get him to stop selling these photos – he’s after his money too. Do you think Jay-Z could be taking reputational risk because of that?
I do not think so. If you talk to a sane person, explain the facts, and say, “Hey, if someone used your face on a t-shirt and sold it, what would you think of that?” I think it’s pretty understandable to anyone that that is not allowed. And then when you really get into how entertainers make money, if you are in the business at all, you understand the value of someone’s brand and face. And often that’s an important part of how they market themselves and how they make money. I don’t think it’s going to be a reputational problem.
I also understand the photographer. I think it’s kind of a lesson for photographers: if you’re photographing someone for an album cover, you can prevent it from happening entirely by preparing and drafting some kind of agreement that you give the artist and say, “When we’re done with this If I ever publish a book, can I have permission to use it? If I want to publish this on my website, can I have permission to do so? ”And then everyone is happy.
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