Sunday Mailbag

March 25th, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Aren’t you worried about getting sued by a celebrity for selling their caricature? Isn’t their image copyrighted somehow?

A: No, I am not worried about it for many reasons. First off, I don’t sell their caricatures. I draw caricatures for publications like magazines, books and newspapers. Neither I nor they can be sued by a celebrity for using their likeness to accompany a story or article, because that’s what freedom of the press is. Magazines use photos and illustrations of celebrities all the time and the only way they can be sued if is the article that they are illustrating knowingly lies about the person. That’s called libel, and even that is tough to prove in court (see: tabloids). Beside that has nothing to do with the art. MAD has been sued many times and the courts have always upheld their right to parody or make fun of celebrities and/or the media.

Celebrities do have a copyright on their image in a way, it’s called the right of publicity. Basically this is a right to protect the value of their own image or likeness. The laws vary a lot as they are state level laws.. there is no federal statute defining the right of publicity. The right of publicity mainly deals with preventing another party from producing products where the likeness of the celebrity is the driving force behind the product’s appeal, or from using the likeness of the celebrity to sell another product. There are several court cases that have set some precedents on these matters. The right of publicity does not extend to the use of a celebrity’s image in news, publications, books or other vehicles of opinion, nor for public criticism or parody as long as the vehicle of that criticism is a recognized one.

I can legally use the likenesses of celebrities to advertise my art. That is called fair use. As long as I do not imply in any way that the specific celebrities I have caricature examples of are personally endorsing my work, I can legally use their caricatures to demonstrate my abilities. I make a living doing caricatures… caricatures need to look like their subjects… the only way I can show potential clients my skills is to show them caricatures of people they will recognize… the only way to do that is draw people anyone will recognize… that means celebrities. Fair use.

Back in August I wrote a long, detailed blog post about the right of publicity and how it pertains to caricature in particular. Check that out if you want more details.

Thanks to Steve Jensen for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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