Most of the internet's biggest fandoms are operating against the law.

By Judy Brumley
Updated: May 30, 2019 @ 10:46 am
Getty Images

Selena Gomez follows 58 people on Instagram. She follows Cardi B, with whom she recently collaborated. She follows her best friend, Taylor Swift. And, she follows six Selena Gomez fan accounts, each of which have hundreds of thousands of followers.

In 2014, @sgomezupdatess became the first fan account Gomez followed on Instagram. Managed by Ciera Mullen, a 21-year-old college student from South Portland, Maine, the account once boasted 640,000 followers. Gomez followed several more fan accounts that same year, including @sexlikeselena, an Instagram managed by Lexi Smillow, a 21-year-old college student from Philadelphia, with more than 512,000 followers.

These two accounts were virtually the same. Often, the same photos appeared on both — like the time Gomez was spotted kissing Justin Bieber at his hockey game after they had broken up, or when she performed “Wolves” with Marshmello at the 2017 American Music Awards.

But unlike Smillow’s account, Mullen’s no longer exists. Like many celebrity fan accounts, @sgomezupdates was disabled due to copyright infringement in summer 2018, despite the fact that Mullen had stopped sharing paparazzi photos and archived hundreds of candid posts. Since she had been sharing photos she didn’t technically own, her posts were reported, and her account taken down.  

In order to understand why accounts like these are targeted by photo agencies using image-matching software to find rights violations, it’s important to know what, exactly, they are, and how influential they can be. Think of them as the 2019 version of putting posters on your bedroom walls — only those posters can be seen by millions of people. The accounts collect paparazzi shots, throwback photos, and red carpet looks all dedicated to the celebrity in question. All of the world’s biggest stars — including Meghan Markle, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and yes, Selena Gomez — have hundreds of fan accounts run by their most devoted followers. And just like fans who’d rip out magazine pages of the stars they idolize, fans show their appreciation on social media without considering who actually owns the photos.

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“When an update account has posted candids in the past, it’s impossible to protect it with the software companies like Backgrid use,” Mullen explains, mentioning one photo agency that would search for illegal uses of its photos online, and report those uses to Instagram. “The only way people got their accounts reinstated was paying thousands for each photo that was reported.”

20-year-old Bri in Arizona spends a couple of hours each day running @taylors_swift13 — a Taylor Swift fan account with nearly 70,000 followers. “Taylor herself noticed my posts and commented back in 2014, which got the account a lot of attention,” Bri says. She adds that she had to delete a couple of photos in the past because of copyright problems, but that her account has never been disabled.

Accounts like these started getting deleted when BackGrid started outsourcing its copyright enforcement to Okularity, a company that scans the Internet for the unauthorized use of photos, in 2018. The partnership between BackGrid and Okularity strengthened the agency’s ability to find pictures being used illegally — like when fan accounts share paparazzi photos they don’t own the rights to — which led to hundreds of accounts getting deleted last summer.

Fan accounts often try to use workarounds, uploading copyrighted images by crediting the owner in the caption, but according to Ginny Sanderson, a partner at internet law firm Kronenberger Rosenfeld, LLP, mentioning the photographer or agency, like magazines and websites do, is not enough.

“Reputable celebrity news and fashion outlets, like InStyle, People, and TMZ, obtain celebrity images lawfully by paying for licenses to use them,” she explains. “Since these outlets do pay for the photos, they deserve to be one of only a handful of places you can go to view them.”

Since the photographer or agency who took a photo has copyright ownership of it, they decide who gets to post it — and that usually means whoever is paying for that use. Finding images on social media or elsewhere online, as many fan accounts do, does not make them free for use. Even celebrities have to refrain from posting paparazzi shots of themselves.

On May 13, paparazzi photographer Robert Barbera filed a lawsuit against Ariana Grande for posting two now-deleted photos on her personal Instagram account in August that he had taken. Barbera is suing for either the money Grande has earned from the images, or $25,000 for each of the two photos she shared.

The “thank u, next” singer isn’t the first celeb to get in trouble for posting a paparazzi shot. Gigi Hadid has also addressed copyright infringement by taking her frustrations to Instagram after she was “legally pursued” for sharing a photo of herself. Ariel Winter had a paparazzi photo she posted deleted from her account. Khloé Kardashian even addressed the fan-account situation with her followers on Twitter.

“A paparazzi sued me in the past for reposting an image of MYSELF,” Kardashian wrote. According to The Washington Times, she was once asked for $25,000 in damages after posting a paparazzi photo. Her sister Kim Kardashian has also tweeted about this, saying, “I hate that the paparazzi agencies get all of the fan accounts shut down! Ugh we have to think of something! Maybe start our own agency?”

Though celebs (and their fans) can say this is unfair, the fact of the matter is that reposting copyrighted images is illegal, and it causes problems for photographers.

“The reason posting these photos is problematic is that photographers and their agencies make their livings by selling the rights to use these photographs, but their ability to do so is hampered when images go viral and are reposted by people who did not pay for them,” Sanderson explains.

For the time being, Backgrid appears to have moved on from taking down fan accounts. But just to be safe, fans shouldn’t post any paparazzi photos. Instead, they should share photos they personally took or have permission to use, like a photo taken by a fellow fan. Smillow notes that reposing images from brands like Coach or Puma, with which Gomez collaborates, isn't an issue. After all, what brand would sue an account for reposting their advertisements for free? The same things goes for behind-the-scenes shots with the celebrity's glam squad — as long as there's no professional photographer involved. 

“You don’t need an account to prove that you’re supporting an artist,” Mullen says. “Selena is someone who is in my life every day though music, fashion, and all that she does. I’ll always be there when fans are expected, wherever that is, you’ll always find me in the crowd.”

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