Photographer Sues Detroit Lions For Using His Photo For NFL Star’s Statue

A photographer has sued the Detroit Lions for allegedly using his photo of former football star Barry Sanders to design a statue of him.

According to a report by Michigan Live, the Detroit Lions unveiled an 8-foot statue of Sanders outside Ford Field stadium in Downtown Detroit in September 2023.

In a lawsuit filed last week, photographer Allen Kee claims that the sculpture of the former football star is based on an image that he took of Sanders in action during the Detroit Lions game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to the photographer’s lawsuit, the Detroit Lions published a YouTube video about the making of the sculpture called “Sculpting Barry: The Making of Lions Legend Barry Sanders’ Statue” one week after the statue’s unveiling last year.

In the YouTube video, which remains online, a blown-up copy of Kee’s photograph of Sanders can be seen hanging directly behind the clay mold of the statue as the sculptors work on it in a studio.

At another point in the YouTube video, one of the statue’s sculptors also acknowledges that they intended to “recreate” Kee’s photograph in the statue.

“We have a photo that’s considered the most iconic running photo ever taken of Barry Sanders,” the sculptor is heard saying in the footage.

“That’s what’s being re-created in this sculpture.”

A Statue Based on a Photograph

Kee, who has been a sports photographer for more than three decades, claims the Detroit Lions used his photo of Sanders for the statue without his consent.

Michigan Live reports that Kee, who was working as a freelance photographer when the photo was taken, says he was not an employee of any entity or organization at the time he created the photograph and did not create the image under any “work for hire” arrangement or contract.

Kee is now suing the Detroit Lions, as well as Getty Images, NFL Properties, NFL Enterprises, Fanatics, Dick’s Sporting Goods, McFarlane Toys, and others in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, for direct, contributory, and/or vicarious copyright infringement.

The photographer alleges that he never granted an exclusive license regarding the photograph to any person or entity, nor photograph sub-licensing to customers, along with other photographs he created during the same game.

However, Kee admits that he did submit the image of Sanders to “NFL Photos” — a licensing agency created, owned, and operated by the NFL that was dedicated to licensing and distributing photos by freelance photographers at NFL games.

However, NFL Photos ceased operation in 2004. Furthermore, Kee claims he did not relinquish his copyrights to the agency, created, nor did he grant the NFL or any of its subsidiary entities any license or rights to use the photo without purchasing an additional usage license.

The photographer is suing Getty Images for never giving them consent to resubmit his photo for relicensing and McFarlane Toys for profiting off three figures of Sanders figures allegedly based on Kee’s image.

Kee is asking for an undetermined amount of relief in the lawsuit, as well as a permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants from copying, displaying, distributing, advertising, promoting, and/or exploiting in any manner his copyrighted work.

Image credits: Feature photo via YouTube/Detroit Lions.