Industry News

Photographer Bills Gun-Toting Couple for Using Viral Image, Then They Sue Him

November 17, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

© William Greenblatt/UPI

Gun-toting couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey guard their home during the June 28, 2020 George Floyd protest, photographed by UPI photographer William Greenblatt. After discovering that the McCloskeys took the image and used it in a greeting card that they sent out, Greenblatt sent them a bill for $1,500. Their response was to file a lawsuit against him, one that states that he trespassed on their property while taking images of them. Now they want the court to transfer ownership of Greenblatt's images over to them.

Imagine logging into Twitter and finding that one of your images, shot on assignment a few months back, has been turned into a greeting card sent out by the subjects of said image. That’s what happened to United Press International (UPI) photographer William Greenblatt, prompting him to bill the gun-toting couple for using a viral image of themselves without his permission, citing the couple’s usage as a “clear-cut case of copyright infringement.”

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

The image gone viral and seen around the world was of attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey standing guard in front of their St. Louis mansion with guns in hand. It was photographed by Greenblatt during a George Floyd protest of 500 marchers filing past the McCloskey home on a private street in St. Louis on June 28. (The couple was indicted shortly afterwards by a St. Louis grand jury on charges of unlawful use of a weapon and tampering with evidence.)

[Read: The Paparazzi Sued a Supermodel for Posting a Photo of Herself to Instagram]

“Being lawyers, they should know copyright laws, but apparently they feel like they don’t need to adhere to any of that,” Greenblatt told Petapixel in an interview in November. Greenblatt apparently sent the couple a cease-and-desist letter back at the end of September stating that, “I am in the business of selling images. I do not give them away for free.” Greenblatt also included a bill for $1,500, adding that it is a “normal charge” for this type of image.

© William Greenblatt

That letter and bill from Greenblatt prompted Mark McCloskey to take to Facebook and not only post the photographer’s letter but also write: “This made my day: the photographer that trespassed into my neighborhood and stole a photo of us has sent us a bill!!!!! Now be nice and don’t bother him, but what chutzpah.”

[Read: 6 Lame Copyright Excuses Photographers Should
Watch Out For

As of November 7, the McCloskeys had yet to respond to Greenblatt’s letter. “It’s not money I’m after,” Greenblatt told Petapixel—I simply want to protect my copyright as a photographer. I cover the news, I don’t try to be the news. It puts me in an uncomfortable situation.” Greenblatt pointed out in news reports that this particular photo has also been the most widely seen image of his long career as a photojournalist. “[It has] probably gone more viral than many other photos that I’ve done in 50 years. I’ve had covers of magazines and things like that but nothing like this.”

[Read: What You Can (and Cannot) Do When Your Photo Goes Unexpectedly Viral]

On November 9, the McCloskeys finally responded to Greenblatt’s invoice by filing a suit against him, one that states that he trespassed on their property while taking images of them, and now they want the court to transfer ownership of Greenblatt’s images to the couple themselves.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that in a lawsuit filed in St. Louis Circuit Court, the McCloskeys claimed that Greenblatt was trespassing on their property when he captured his photos of them and that the photo contributed to their “significant national recognition and infamy” as well as “humiliation, mental anguish and severe emotional distress and death threats.” The article also went on to note that newspaper photographers are allowed to capture images from public rights of way and that the McCloskeys live on a private street and have argued that protesters were trespassing.

UPI and the print-on-demand marketplace Redbubble are also named in the suit by the McCloskeys and are being accused of profiting (alongside Greenblatt) from “t-shirts, masks and other items, and licensing use of photographs bearing Plaintiffs’ likenesses, without obtaining Plaintiffs’ consent.”

We will be keeping any eye on how this continues to play out as our legal writer digs deeper and analyzes the case for us from all sides. Stay tuned as we foresee even more twists and turns emerging as time goes by.