Entertainment Law: Who Owns the Copyright to Oscar Host’s Selfie?

Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres made quite a fun and somewhat legal stir with her now-famous and very viral ‘selfie’ composed of some of the most famous celebrities in Hollywood.

A dazzling photo of superstars in gowns and tuxes – tweeted more than any picture in the history of Twitter – the Oscar selfie literally took over the Internet. Of course, the Associated Press immediately asked DeGeneres for permission to use her photo in their editorial coverage of the Oscar event. DeGeneres allowed them to do so.

But wait. Who legally owns the copyright to the photo? Various news organizations, journalists and entertainment law attorneys have offered up different thoughts about who owns it.

The picture was DeGeneres’ idea, taken with DeGeneres’ Samsung camera.

But Ellen did not actually take the picture. In order to fit everyone into the photo, Ellen’s arms were not quite long enough, so she passed the camera to nearby celeb Bradley Cooper, who pressed the shutter. So now we have Bradley Cooper taking the picture on Ellen DeGeneres’ camera. Is Cooper technically the owner of the copyright? Are they co-authors of the photo?

Although the photo was DeGeneres’ astute idea, since Bradley Cooper took the photo, there is a strong case that he owns the copyright. Under the rules of authorship in copyright law, the owner of a copyright is the author of the work. In the case of a photograph, the author of the work is typically the person who snaps the shutter and takes the shot.

But there may be yet another issue. The camera that Ellen used onstage for the selfie was a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Samsung advertises with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that puts on the Oscars.

Samsung apparently gave the smartphone to DeGeneres as a marketing promotion—and therefore raises the possibility that Samsung had an agreement with DeGeneres on photo rights taken with the camera. Could Samsung claim exclusive rights to the selfie? In later editorial comments, Samsung has denied any ownership of the now-famous photo.

Warning Bell for Online Publishers of Content and Media  

The Oscar scenario is true, although likely no legal action will be taken by those involved. Yet it is an incredible example of legal issues that surround a live-camera world. The legal issue actually is, who has the exclusive right to profit through use of the photo, where any use of the photo without the author’s consent would be an infringement of the author’s exclusive rights.

The Oscar selfie was even the topic of the State of the Industry presentation at the annual UCLA Entertainment Symposium, which occurred on the heels of the Oscars. Tom Wolzien, a media consultant and former producer and news executive at NBC News, posed the following:

“What happens when you take a picture of a copyrighted work of art, of children at play, of strangers who happen to be in the frame when you shoot that selfie? When the transmission of those photos goes worldwide, how do you deal with the laws in all the different countries where the images may be seen? Who is a journalist deserving of protections offered to the media in some places – such as shield laws – and who is just somebody taking pictures and sharing them worldwide?”

Questions for an Orlando Entertainment Lawyer

Other entertainment and media laws come in to play as well, including intellectual property rights, libel and pirated content. What should a content publisher do if he or she finds himself or herself in a similar position as DeGeneres, Cooper, or other people or companies that could try to claim copyright ownership of a photo or other published content?

When in doubt, ask permission, and never hesitate to seek the counsel of a qualified media and intellectual property lawyer both to protect your copyrights and make sure you do not infringe on anyone else’s copyrights in your work.

Speak with an experienced Florida attorney at our firm today.Call 855-Kramer-Now (855-572-6376).


The Hollywood Reporter, Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar Selfie Signals a Lot of Thorny Legal Issues to Come, Alex Ben Block, March 7, 2014

The Wire, Paging Bradley Cooper’s Lawyers: He Might Own Ellen’s Famous Oscar Selfie, Philip Bump, March 3, 2014

PolicyMic, Who Owns the Viral Oscar Selfie? Not Ellen DeGeneres, Eileen Shim, March 4, 2014

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