Photographer Sues Napster Over Album Artwork in Case That May Upset Music Industry

photographer sues napster over image album artwork precedent record labels

A photographer is suing Napster for using his image of a musician without the proper license — in a case that could set a precedent that would require record labels to verify what rights were secured from photographers when their pictures were licensed for use on album covers.

In 1979, British photographer Adrian Boot shot a portrait of reggae artist Sugar Minott. 26 years later, in 2005, music label Soul Jazz Records then licensed Boot’s image for use in the artwork for the release of the album Sugar Minott At Studio One.

The label’s distributor PIAS then delivered Sugar Minott At Studio One along with the album artwork including Boot’s photograph to music streaming service Napster.

However, according to a report by Complete Music Update, Boot has sued Napster for this — claiming that the streaming platform’s promotion of this reggae record infringed his copyright for the photo used on Minott’s album cover.

The Photographer Says He Never Licensed The Image to Napster

On Friday, the photographer told a Washington federal judge that while he licensed the album art to record label Soul Jazz Records, Napster did not have rights to the photo itself.

According to Complete Music Update, Boot claims that he discovered that Napster was using his photograph alongside Minott’s tracks on the music streaming platform in 2022.

The photographer insists that his agreement with Soul Jazz Records was restricted to the specific use of his image on the cover of Sugar Minott At Studio One. Boot alleges that any other usage of the photo required it to be licensed via his company Urbanimage.

In his suit against Napster, Boot is reportedly seeking statutory damages under U.S. copyright law in the region of $15,000.

Napster Says This is Common Practice

However, Napster urged a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Boot against the company and says it is common practice for music labels to distribute licensed photos with an album’s release.

Napster says that Soul Jazz Records’ license to use Boot’s photo on Minott’s album cover “implied a non-exclusive license to distribute the photograph along with the album.”

Furthermore, Napster claims its own agreement with the album’s distributor PIAS grants the streaming service permission “to distribute, post, transmit, download, store, reproduce, display, and exhibit each track’s corresponding artwork.”

Napster says this case is so cut-and-dry that Boot should cover the company’s legal costs for pursuing the lawsuit. The streaming platform claims that “to investigate and refute Mr. Boot’s claim required Napster to dig through reams of distribution agreements and trace the chain of a single photograph over the course of decades.”

The streaming service argued that this “herculean and burdensome task” revealed “nothing more than what Mr Boot had known all along: he had already been paid for a license to use his photographs on Mr. Minott’s album.”

What Does This Case Mean for Record Labels?

After setting out their respective arguments in a Seattle court last week, Boot and Napster await judgment on the copyright infringement case.

As Complete Music Update reports, if the judge sides with Boot in the lawsuit, the case could have wide-ranging ramifications for the way record labels license images from photographers on album and single covers. It also raises questions about whether record labels always have the necessary rights for music streaming platforms to use a photographer’s image.

Is Napster Really Still Going?

Millennials will hear the name Napster and think of the heady days at the turn of the millennium when Napster was the number one place to go on the internet to get music, but notoriously it was not all legal.

Napster faced multiple lawsuits and was forced to close in 2001, filing for bankruptcy in 2002. However, Napster’s assets were purchased by Roxio and subsequently purchased by other companies until bought by Rhapsody in 2016 which phased out its own brand in favor of Napster.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.