Industry News

LeBron James Countersues Photographer for $1,000,000

December 31, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

Photo by All-Pro Reels and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

UPDATED 2/5/21: LeBron James has agreed to a settlement in this case after being sued by photographer Stephen Mitchell. (James later countersued Mitchell for $1,000,000.) Specific terms of the settlement, disclosed in a court filing on Wednesday, February 3, have not been made public, but it appears to result in closing both outstanding lawsuits.

“The parties have reached a settlement in principle that resolves all claims in this action,” the two sides wrote in the joint filing as reported by The Athletic. “The parties thus jointly request twenty-one (21) days to memorialize and execute the agreement in writing, after which time the parties intend to file a stipulation of dismissal with prejudice.”

It’s a splashy headline for sure that’s been showing up, in one form or another, all over the Internet: “LeBron James Countersues Photographer for $1,000,000.” This comes after the Los Angeles Lakers basketball superstar was sued this past March for posting a photo of himself, taken by photojournalist Steve Mitchell, to his social media accounts without permission. We’ve reported on these matters in the past, but now the case has garnered even more attention in the last couple of weeks as James countersues the photographer for $1,000,000 in damages and attorney fees from Mitchell.

First, the backstory: In December 2019, LeBron James posted a cropped photo of himself dunking a basketball in a game against the Miami Heat to his Instagram and Facebook accounts—which has tens of millions of followers—without the photographer’s permission. That post quickly became the center of a copyright infringement battle with Mitchell claiming “unauthorized use” of the image and filing suit against the basketball player and his companies Uninterrupted Digital Ventures and LRMR Ventures, LLC. for $150,000.

[Read: Small Claims for Copyright: The CASE Act Becomes Law]

According to sports media company Clutchpoints, James initially contested the suit in court filings, citing that he is entitled to post the photos as long as he isn’t commercially exploiting Mitchell’s work. Nonetheless, he later removed the photographs from his social media sites.

Next, James and his lawyers responded to Mitchell’s lawsuit by filing a countersuit against the photographer. As reported earlier this month by The Athletic‘s Daniel Kaplan, James is currently asking for at least $1,000,000 and attorney fees.

According to legal experts cited in various news reports on the copyright fight, the case could go either way as arguments over fair use can be hard to navigate.

[Read: What Photographers Need to Know About Copyright Law]

When Sports Illustrated had its legal analyst, attorney Michael McCann, write about the case back in March 2020, he noted that, “The fact that James is featured prominently in Mitchell’s photo did not give James the right to publish it elsewhere. Mitchell owns his photos. This goes to the essence of copyright law: absent a contractual relationship that instructs otherwise, Mitchell possesses copyrights in his creative works, including his photos. As a result, Mitchell has the right to control the reproduction of his photos, such as their publication on social media websites.”

McCann went on to write that, “Mitchell can decide whether to license his photos and, if so, demand financial compensation for granting a license. Furthermore, as a credentialed photojournalist and consistent with NBA media policies, Mitchell has permission to take photos during NBA games so long as the photos are for news coverage of those games. Those who interfere with Mitchell’s copyrights are potentially liable for infringement.”

That said, McCann also pointed out that James himself does not lack rights in how a photo of him is used. “James enjoys a ‘right of publicity’ that encompasses his image in photos. While the scope of the right of publicity varies by state, and while the First Amendment sometimes limits its application, the right generally protects one’s name, image, likeness and associated identity traits from unauthorized commercial use. James can sue violators for misappropriating his right of publicity.”

The hoop star’s attorney, Howard Shire, said in a statement to The Athletic that, “Only after our client was sued for copyright infringement for alleged use of a single photo—which we have consistently tried to settle for a reasonable amount—did we file this countersuit upon learning the photographer was making unlawful use of photographs of our client on his website to advertise and promote his photography services business. We continue to try to resolve this matter amicably. We have no interest whatsoever in ultimately obtaining any amounts from the plaintiff.”

Photographer Mitchell has since argued that James’ “sought-after figure of $1,000,000 in damages is not only excessive, but threatens the work of all sports photographers.”

After hearing both sides about a week ago, presiding Judge George Wu called on both sides to settle the dispute. A ruling is expected any day now.

 Photo By All-Pro Reels and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.