Submitted by Teri Karobonik last modified Mon, 10/26/2015 - 3:42pm
At New Media Rights we’ve received a surprising amount of contact forms related to using mugshots on commercially sold items. Although we cover whether mugshots are in the public domain here, this blog post tailors that information a bit more specifically for people who may want to put a mug shot on something and sell it.
A word of caution upfront, putting a mugshot on any commercially sold items raises some serious legal questions. If you’re serious about starting a business like this you should consult with an attorney since this blog only raises some of the issues you may need to look out for and is NOT legal advice.
Copyright law protects creative works including, believe it or not, mugshots. But the exact copyright status of mugshots from different law enforcement agencies is a bit more complex.
In general mugshots taken by federal law enforcement agencies(such as federal prisons and the FBI) are in the public domain and are not protected by copyright law. This is because a photo taken by a federal employee as part of their work for the federal government is in the public domain and not protected by copyright law.
However, for mugshots taken by state law enforcement the mugshots may or may not be in the public domain since state, city and other local entities can make their own decisions on whether or not to release mugshots and other photos taken by their employees into the public domain. In addition, some states may chose to restrict access to some mugshots under certain circumstances for reasons unrelated to copyright law.
For photos that are under copyright and access is not restricted, depending on your use of the photo, fair use may apply. However, for commercial use in particular we strongly recommend seeking out legal counsel before you release your product commercially to ensure you have a strong fair use argument.
Right of publicity & privacy laws
Even if the mugshot you intend to use is in the public domain(or your use is fair use) there are still other legal issues to consider. Approximately half of all US states have right of publicity laws. Although statues vary significantly from state to state, they are designed to prevent unauthorized commercial use of a person’s image, name, and likeness, although some are expansive enough to cover things like the sound of a person’s voice. Thus in some states, when mugshots are used commercially in certain ways they may violate a person’s right of publicity. Keep in mind that some states, like California, even extend this right after death.
Also, just because your state doesn’t have a law called “right of publicity” doesn’t necessarily mean your state doesn’t have a law that would prevent a mugshot from being used commercially. Sometimes that kind of law may be part of the states privacy laws or even unfair competition laws.
These are just a few of the legal issues that come up when using mugshots commercially on products. If you are seriously considering putting mugshots on products and selling them, we highly recommend seeking out an attorney to advise you on the full array of legal issues that may arise from this type of business.