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why the paparazzi are suing celebrities over instagram pics

Paparazzi are now biting the hand that feeds them.

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17 May 2019, 8:00am

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There was a time when a picture of a celebrity doing nothing would sell for six figures. This was in the heyday of paparazzi — a small venture started by a few photographers in the late 90s, which eventually exploded into a cataclysmic capitalist orgy somewhere between the new millennium and 2010. In those hyper-celeb days, where Paris Hilton would use subtle codes to tip off snap hungry photographers about her plans; where “getting the shot” often consisted of camouflaging yourself and hiding in a bush desperately trying to snap Avril Lavigne’s marriage to Derrick Whibley; where the chaos culminated in a hounded Britney Spears attacking a car with an umbrella, the right photo could sell for anywhere between $10,000 and $500,000 (the former for a picture of Ben Affleck buying books on poker, the latter for the very last picture of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt together, walking down a beach).

But like any industry built on fragile relationships, it tumbled as quickly as it grew. Following the financial crash and the rapid rise of digital media, the appetite for celeb pics increased while the price that companies were willing to pay for them decreased. The picture agencies that paparazzos sold their photographs to adapted, creating subscription models for publishers that inevitably drove the price of individual pics down. The gold rush was over – being a member of the paparazzi don’t pay no more.

"The list of celebrities who’ve attacked paps is endless: Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake, Avril Lavigne, Chris Martin, Woody Harrelson, those surfers who attacked the paps on behalf of their mate Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Sean Penn, Kanye, Bjork, Britney."

As a result of this crash, and the rise of Instagram, an even weirder relationship between paps and celebs has blossomed, one where the paparazzi are suing the celebs they rely on. For example, photographer Robert Barbera recently filed a lawsuit against Ariana Grande, claiming that she violated copyright law by posting a picture he took of her to her own social media, back in August last year. Ari, he alleged, had essentially stolen a pic of herself from him. Hollywood, it seems, has tumbled further into the absurd.

Of course, back in the golden era of the paparazzi, there was a tacit agreement: one where celebrities would give the paps the picture, the paps would get the money shot and the stars would stay in the news. The paparazzi movement spawned celebrity gossip magazines like Us Weekly, In Touch Weekly, Life and Style Weekly and OK!. You know the ones: plastered in images of stars, anywhere from A-List to Z-List, leaving the gym, below a headline which reads “[X Celebrity’s] Shocking and Shameful [Y]” or “[X Celebrity]: “I’m just so Y, I don’t know if I can ever Z” or “[X Celebrity] wants [Y Celebrity] Back!”

On a weekly basis there were reports of different celebrities, like clockwork, getting angry and attacking the paps — driven to despair by an inability to literally move for being mobbed by throngs of photographers, all mostly men. The list of celebrities who’ve attacked paps is endless: Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake, Avril Lavigne, Chris Martin, Woody Harrelson, those surfers who attacked photographers on behalf of their mate Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Sean Penn, Kanye, Bjork, Britney.

Yet what unites most of this list (bar the final three, of course) is that the peak of their fame was when pap shots were our only access to celebrity, and we, the public, were hungry for them. In 2010 the arrival of Instagram brought this house of paparazzi cards hurtling down. For the first time celebrities reclaimed agency over their own image, and those who knew how to talk to a fan base directly rose up the ranks, while those who’d engaged in this complicated pap nexus haven’t quite got the hang of self-curating an image (c.f. LiLo, Paris). As a result, the gold rush of the paparazzi industry has slowed to a near halt, and all of those weekly gossip magazines have seen a drastic hit to their circulation: in 2006 Us Weekly sold a million copies a week, but, according to BuzzFeed News, in 2016 it wasn’t even hitting 200,000, a trend shared across all those aforementioned magazines, without exception.

Luckily for those wily paps though, there’s a new means of making money from an image which is perhaps more absurd than hiring a cherry picker to get an aerial view of Julia Roberts’s wedding. Since last year there’s been a spate in paparazzi-celebrity lawsuits — wherein agencies and individual photographers both file and win lawsuits against celebrities who have posted their picture, even if the picture is of themselves.

Regarding the recent situation with Ariana Grande, it’s a great pic of her – ugh, love Ari. In the snap she’s holding a bag which says “Sweetener” atop a caption that reads ‘happy sweetener day’, which (lol, what is the world?) has 3.3 million likes – that’s more copies than Us Weekly sells in three months! Barbera wants $25k per image, plus all the profits Ariana has potentially made from it.

This is an ever growing trend, it seems, in the now obscure world of the paparazzi picture. In the last year alone, Gigi Hadid, Kim Kardashian, JLo, Jessica Simpson and 50 Cent have all been sued for the same reason. These claims often add up to about $150k, or all the profits made from the images. In JLo’s case, for example, she posted a picture of herself smiling to her stories with the (now ironic) caption ‘Today Was a Good Day’ and a pap wants $150k for it. Mood!

First off, this is somewhat tragic: a desperate bid to make money from a dying and, frankly, fairly brutal art. Paparazzi need to make their money somehow, and if the figures are anything to go by, they’re not raking it like they did in the culturally barren days of the noughties.

On the other side of the hefty gold coin, it’s an oddly tragic world we live in where you get sued for posting your own face on to your own social media account. That said, if an artist paints my face, do I own the profits? No, they do. If a movie star makes a huge hit do they make the profit? No, it’s the executive producer (obvs sometimes the stars exec, or like, in Britney’s case, paint stunning art and thus make the profit too).

But it’s classic copyright law where the favour is in the hands of the people who created the thing rather than those in the thing that was created. And it’s doubtless these celebrities are aware of that law: it was only back in February that Ari was sued for copyright infringement because the candle scene in the God Is A Woman video is near identical to that of a Las Vegas-based artist. While the bigger question we should be asking here is why would anyone live in Las Vegas, the point is that these celebrities will have whole teams who both brief them and protect them legally and so, while it’s absurd that she can’t post her own face, she will very much know she shouldn’t.

So, while we might think “poor Ari can’t post on her own social media”, even though climate change is set to send us into bloody terror and oblivion in the next two decades, Instagram is a full on business for stars like her. Just last week she posted about her being the face of Givenchy, or the newly named #arivenchy, and if you think she didn’t have cash carved out for those posts in the contract you’ve been fooled by a rigged system. It’s estimated that Kylie Jenner makes a $1million per sponsored Instagram post and so while it seems a little dumb, it is perhaps only fair that the artist who facilitates this money making content is remunerated.

Ultimately, the world is ending. Sure, it’s sad that paparazzi have to sue celebrities to make a wage. Sure, it’s sad that celebrities, in some cases, don’t own their own images. But in reality they’re probably all loaded and/or morally corrupt, and so while indeed lines are blurred and things feel a little icky, like we’re trapped inside the Matrix which is capitalism, when you consider just how much money there is to be leveraged from the image of a celebrity like Ariana Grande — a position she has certainly put herself in — it’s pretty fair that, until capitalism is overthrown and replaced by eco-socialism, everyone should get paid.