Big time blogger faces big time copyright suit

Case promises fair use showdown in blogging context.

[Thanks to Venkat for alerting me to this case.]

The widely-read Los Angeles-based gossip blogger Perez Hilton, whose blog features all sorts of tabloid-like commentary on Hollywood culture, has been sued by X17, a photo agency known for collecting images of celebrities in sometimes not-so-flattering situations. X17 is claiming copyright infringement, and, according to this article from the Boston Herald, the claimed damages are quite substantial (about $7.5 million).

X17 says that Hilton has used its images of celebrities without permission, but Hilton is claiming fair use. And this presents and interesting question. The plaintiff is characterized as a paparazzi agency by this L.A. Times article. It looks like Hilton simply appropriates the images of others, and, using photo editing software, scrawls handwritten messages upon the images. He then posts them with commentary and reports of the celebrities’ goings on.

So will Hilton’s fair use argument get him off the hook? The Copyright Act provides that a defendant’s use of a work is fair if, among other things, the use was made “for purposes such as criticism, comment, [and] news reporting.” Hilton’s lawyer says that the use in this case is fair commentary and a transformation of the original works.

With the dispute framed this way, we’re presented with the question of what are the purpose and character of original paparazzi photos? Are they made for purposes of poking fun and fostering gossip or are they made for some other reason? That “some other reason” seems like it could be elusive. In any event, we’re likely to see X17 make some distinction between serious paparazzi efforts and the efforts of Hilton to make his commentary.