Who Owns the Copyright to a Photo if Your Friend Takes the Picture Using Your Phone?

If you ask another person to take a photo using your device, who owns the copyright to that image? You might assume as owner of the cellphone, you also own the copyright to any original image taken with that device. However, a court’s ruling on this matter might surprise you.

For example, Vivek Shah is a small-time actor who rubbed shoulders with celebrities. He often asked friends and other individuals to use his cell phone to take photos of himself with well-known actors and actresses at various Hollywood events.

Before handing over the phone, Shah adjusted the settings on the cellphone’s camera to his liking. After, Shah uploaded photos of himself and famous celebs to his Facebook and IMDB pages.

Shortly later and related to another matter, Shah was arrested for extortion which garnered media attention. Media outlets published several of Shah’s cellphone images and misattributed the photo credits. After his release from jail, Shah sued the media companies for copyright infringement because they used the images taken with his cellphone without his permission.

Does copyright automatically belong to the owner of the camera?

Although it seems as if Shah had a solid case, the fact that he didn’t take the photos himself leads to an interesting question: who owns the photos taken with Shah’s phone?

Shah didn’t have a copyright just because he appeared in the photos, however, he claimed that he did have a copyright because he owned the equipment used to take the images and because he gave directions to the photographers.

The court didn’t buy Shah’s claims. Instead, the court decided that the individuals who took the photographs were the “authors who created the works” and, therefore, are entitled to copyright. As a result, the court dismissed Shah’s copyright claim.

Even though the implications of this case are broad, the court isn’t indifferent about the consequences of its conclusions. In a footnote, the court stated that the law as-is does not reflect the current circumstances surrounding cellphone etiquette.

What’s next?

Until the law catches up with technology, it is possible courts may continue to dismiss cases similar to Shah’s, who represented himself. Those who wish to pursue legal action in a similar case may wish to hire an attorney for assistance.

Help is available

If you require assistance with a copyright matter, please contact the attorneys at O’Reilly Rancilio at 586-726-1000 or visit our website.

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