In today’s world, cameras are everywhere.  People use their phones to capture details of their everyday lives for social media apps like Instagram or Snapchat.  Tourists take pictures of city streets and attractions, inevitably capturing the surrounding crowd.  When you think about it, all of us have probably appeared in these types of pictures just by walking by at the right time (or maybe the wrong time).  Living in downtown Nashville, I myself have wondered how many family photo albums I’ve ended up in just by walking down Broadway and Second Avenue.  We all accept this as a natural consequence of the digital age.

What we all probably don’t expect, however, is for these types of inadvertent snapshots of our daily lives to be licensed for various uses in the media.  But this can happen, as Hal Rhorer, an intern for, found out when a picture of him sitting in a Starbucks was used for articles in at least eight different newspapers.  A photographer from the Associated Press had taken the photo and licensed it to news outlets for anywhere between $30-80.  Rhorer may be the model for the picture, but won’t get any money for it, and may have little control over how it is used.

The Associated Press has a database of thousands of photos that can be licensed for editorial or other creative uses.  Their editorial section offers photography of news, celebrities, sports, and a range of other subject matter.  If you search “Starbucks,” the first picture that comes up is of a man, who is not named, standing in front of the logo.  The picture is described as “a man drinks a beverage in front of a Starbucks coffee,” and has a disclaimer that the photo can only be used for editorial purposes.  The First Amendment protects photos used by the press, so there is no problem when newspapers use the pictures this way.  It may seem strange, however, that a third party can make money off of these types of pictures through licensing.

When Rhorer asked Buzzfeed lawyers if he could get any money for the photo, they told him no because he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Since he was in a public place, he had an expectation that he would be seen and no right to be alone, so taking a photo was not an invasion of privacy.  This is especially true today since we are well aware people are taking pictures around us all the time.  With no reasonable expectation that our picture won’t be taken for media purposes, there’s also no expectation that it won’t be taken for licensing purposes.

But another question may arise in these situations: what can you do if your picture is licensed for an article that you disagree with or if it seems to represent you in a certain way? When Rhorer saw his picture was used as the thumbnail image for an article, he tweeted the Chicago Tribune about it.  They responded with an apology, took the picture down, and said they’d make sure it wouldn’t happen again.  While they responded positively and took the picture down without question, not every media outlet may react the same way.  Considering the heightened protection for the press, there’s probably not much a person in Rhorer’s position could do if they objected to the way the photo was used.

So, next time you are scrolling through your newsfeed, check those pictures.  You could be Starbucks’ Next Top Model.  You won’t get any money for it, but you may get a few hours of fame and a great story to tell.

–Erica Hicks


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