A long-running feud between the late "Godfather of Soul" James Brown and a photo archive owned by Bill Gates, the father of Microsoft, has...
CHICAGO — A long-running feud between the late “Godfather of Soul” James Brown and a photo archive owned by Bill Gates, the father of Microsoft, has fallen into the laps of Illinois lawmakers.
The estate of the legendary R&B singer has sued to stop Seattle-based Corbis from displaying photos of Brown on the Internet without its consent.
Yet before the merits of the case have been decided, Corbis has gone to Springfield, the state capital, to lobby for a bill that would protect its valuable franchise of selling celebrity photos.
At issue is Brown’s publicity rights, which prevent the unauthorized commercial exploitation of an individual. The protection has been mainly championed by celebrities who can charge licensing fees for the use of their images.
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But with the popularity of YouTube and other user-generated Web sites, publicity rights are not an issue just for celebrities. The family of a Dallas teen sued Virgin Mobile in Australia after the company allegedly used a picture of the girl on a billboard that it had found on a photo-sharing Web site.
To be sure, much of the litigation on publicity rights involves celebrities. About 20 states, including Illinois, have laws that recognize the right of publicity; others provide the right through broad privacy provisions.
Conflicts arise because the laws offer varying degrees of protection. In Illinois, for example, the right continues for 50 years after death. In New York, the right does not survive death.
Corbis, which Gates founded in 1989, has a collection of more than 100 million images. More than 4 million are available on its Web sites.
The company either owns the copyrights of the pictures or has approval to resell them.
Corbis warns customers that if they intend to use the photos for a commercial purpose, such as selling T-shirts, they have to get permission from the subjects in the image.
Buyers who use Corbis photos for legitimate newsgathering purposes, such as newspapers, do not have to obtain permission.
Brown, who died in 2006, sued in 2002 in Cook County Circuit Court, saying Corbis violated his publicity right by selling photos of him on the Web. Corbis has about 250 images of Brown, a firm spokesman said.
The company moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that offering copyright licenses through a Web site was not an unauthorized commercial use.
Corbis contends in court papers that it “never used images of Brown to sell or advertise any ‘product, merchandise, goods or services’ as required for application of the Publicity Act nor does Corbis sell images of Brown.”
Cook County Judge Allen Goldberg found that Brown had a claim. An appellate court rejected Corbis’ appeal and ordered the trial to proceed.
The Illinois Supreme Court refused to take the case.
In February, state Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, proposed changes to the Illinois right-of-publicity statute. One would allow organizations to license rights to photos without being liable if the customer uses it illegally — legalizing Corbis’ business model.
“Corbis came to me to correct what they think is a misinterpretation of the statute,” Cullerton said.
William Coulson, one of Brown’s attorneys, said he cannot understand why the Illinois Legislature wants to rescue an out-of-state corporation during a pending court case.
The Illinois and Chicago bar associations have weighed in against the bill. So has one of the original drafters of the law.
Corbis officials have suggested the court rulings could harm the media’s ability to buy its photos.
The bill received overwhelming approval in the Senate. A House vote is expected this week.