It took three years, and multiple requests, but law student Kennedy Reese has finally convinced Getty Images to stop selling a photo of her working at McDonalds when she was 15. The photo was taken without her knowledge, and used in numerous negative and embarrassing articles.
According to Australia’s ABC News, the saga began in 2017 when a friend of Reese’s told her that her photo was being used in an article about Brisbane’s bullied Macca’s workers. A quick reverse image search revealed that many more articles were using her photo, including some embarrassing and awkward pieces like this one about a pregnant McDonalds worker who couldn’t fit into her work shirt.
It turns out Getty Images was selling the photo for $600, and despite the fact that it was being used without her knowledge of permission, Reese quickly found out she had no legal recourse. The photo was taken in public, and was being used in editorial coverage, not for commercial purposes. In other words: Getty had no legal reason to pull a photo that was clearly selling well and making them money.
“At first, Getty was quite polite and said they would look into it, but then they consulted their legal department and said they hadn’t done anything illegal,” she tells ABC. “They claimed little responsibility and claimed the third parties should be contacted. [But] it’s hard to ask people to delete the photo when they’ve already paid $600 for it.”
In the intervening years, the photo has come up time and again, and each time she’s had to reach out and try to convince the publications to remove the photo. Some did, others added clarification that the person pictured was not the subject of the article, others did nothing.
But it seems that Getty has finally relented. After a 3-year struggle, the stock photo giant finally removed the photo this month, calling it “a show of good faith for the individual pictured.”
Reese is obviously relieved—as well she should be—but while this seems like the right thing to do, the legal questions it brings up are interesting. In an increasingly digital and connected world, this kind of legal-but-ethically-questionable editorial usage is bound to happen more and more often. As it does, there’s a danger that lawmakers will consider imposing regulations on photographers.
What happens when you must legally ask everyone in your photo for permission before you can sell a photo for editorial use? What about crowds? Sporting events? Hopefully it’ll never come to that, but there may come a time when handling these kinds of ethical complaints one-by-one is no longer a viable option.