Using Celebrity Images for Commerical Resale

Close up of celebrity's hairstyle

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Using the image of a celebrity in a commercial art or craft project may lead to legal problems. This is a common topic of discussion among people who create works to sell. It's important to understand the details because it may cost your business a significant amount of money.

Of course, every scenario is different and you should consult a lawyer. When it comes to commercial projects, it's important to stay on the right side of copyright law and get permission through a model release.

A Case Study: Using Celebrity Images

Let's begin this discussion with a real-life scenario regarding public domain images. These creative works are not protected by copyright and free for use by anyone for commercial or personal needs. In theory, these would be fair game for a business to use, but when the images involve a person who did not agree to it, you enter a sketchy legal territory.

Case in point, one business was using photographs of a celebrity to print postcards, calendars, and the like. They were issued a cease and desist order and sued for monetary damages by the personality. Why? While the images were public domain, the personality had not signed a model release permitting the reproduction of their image for commercial use.

The business was able to work out a structured settlement for $100,000 with the personality over enough time that allowed him to stay in business. However, he was prohibited from selling any more product, which caused him a significant inventory loss. Luckily, the owner had a backup plan and managed to change the direction of his business.

What About Non-Public Domain Images?

Taking the public domain aspect out of it, let's say you want to use an image of a celebrity taken by someone else. You would have to purchase the appropriate license from the owner of the image. Most likely, this would be the photographer who took it. However, you would also need to secure a model release.

For example, you could purchase a license from a photographer for an image of Madonna taken at the Grammys. If you started silk-screening and selling t-shirts with this image before getting a model release from team Madonna, it's very likely that you'll get a call from her attorneys. It may not happen right away, but celebrities have teams who pay attention to these things and it will get noticed eventually.

There was a case in which crafters were purchasing material printed with Disney characters from a fabric retailer like Jo-Ann Fabrics and Craft Stores. The crafters used the material to make items for resale. This was decidedly not okay with Disney as the license to the fabric manufacturer was only for personal, non-commercial use.

You can liken this scenario to movies you copy either from the television or DVDs. It's no big deal if it's for your own personal viewing, but it is a notable federal offense if you do this for resale.

What About Drawings of Celebrities?

Naturally, this leads creative people to think about alternatives. What happens if you're a pretty good artist and draw a picture of Elvis to reproduce on coffee mugs or to use as embroidery patterns for resale to customers? Can Elvis' estate take any legal action against you? 

This is more of a gray area in the legal world and it depends on the circumstance. If you draw the image from your own memory with no photo reference, you might be okay. However, if your drawing is a copy of another copyrighted image that would require a model release, you're dipping your toe into lawsuit area—from either the celebrity or the photographer, possibly both.

The best advice in this matter is to follow the rules artists use regarding copyright. At the same time, because there's a person involved, you need to think about their personal rights and the permissions they would need to grant to make it legal. 

If you have any question about it, you might need to rethink your subject matter. You can save a lot of hassle by keeping celebrities (and other real people) out of it.

When in Doubt, Call a Lawyer

In any of these matters, you really should consult a lawyer. This is also good advice if you're reselling products with copyrighted images that ​do not contain recognizable people.

Many people are not aware that they're doing anything wrong and that mistake can cost you thousands of dollars. When in doubt, it's always safer to get a professional legal opinion.