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After Settling with Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, Photographer Sues Miley Cyrus for Copyright Infringement


American singer Miley Cyrus performs on stage during a show at Movistar Arena on March 21, 2022 in Bogota, Colombia. (Photo by Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

A New York photographer has sued pop star Miley Cyrus for posting a photo he took of her on social media, saying she did so without his permission and in violation of his copyright holding.

The complaint filed Friday in Los Angeles federal court is among approximately 20 copyright lawsuits that Robert Barbera has filed against celebrities and businesses since 2019, including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Tessa Hilton.

It accuses Cyrus of infringing Barbera’s copyright for a photo he took of her waving as she exits a building on Feb. 13, 2020, which she posted to her Instagram page that day. Barbera registered the photo with the U.S. Copyright Office on April 11 but didn’t notice Cyrus had posted it until a month later. Barbera said the photo “increased traffic” to Cyrus’ account and thus caused her “an increase in the revenues generated” through the sale of her music or associated business partnership. Cyrus “has an immense presence on the social media platform with over 169 million followers who interact with the Account.”

“The expansive scope of the dissemination of Plaintiff’s Photograph via the Account only credits the notion that Defendant’s impermissible use has crippled if not destroyed the potentiality of any market for the Photograph by Plaintiff,” according to the nine-page complaint filed in the Central District of California by Craig B. Sanders, a lawyer in Uniondale, New York.

An exhibit of Robert Barbera’s photo, shown here as well, was included with the copyright lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court against Miley Cyrus. (U.S. District Court)

Sanders has another open case on Barbera’s behalf in the Southern District of New York against the fashion design company Hesperios Inc. for posting on its Instagram a copyrighted photo Barbera took of Bella Hadid wearing clothes from Hesperios. He recently settled a lawsuit there against One37PM, LLC, over the website’s use of a photograph he took of Jonah Hill, as well as a lawsuit in Los Angeles against Dua Lipa for posting a photo of herself that Barbera has copyrighted.

The settlement notices don’t state the amount of money involved. Most cases have been settled within a couple months of being filed after no litigation. But some celebrities have pushed back in other cases, including Lisa Rinna, whose lawyer in October 2021 responded to a lawsuit from BackGrid USA by accusing the company of having “weaponized” the copyright law to boost its income during the pandemic.

The company “licenses photographs from paparazzi, and then swiftly seeks copyright protection of said photographs to seeds it revenue-generating operations,” according to an 11-page filing from Los Angeles lawyer David L. Berke. BackGrid also pays third-party vendors to minor celebrity social media accounts “to identify attractive targets.”

“If Defendant’s contention that the ability of photographers to hound celebrities in public (or at times in private locations), in order to profit off of their likenesses, and then turn around and sue those same celebrities for posting their own images on social media, is anathema to what the Copyright Act is intended to protect,” Berke wrote. He called for the amount of available statutory damages to be “drastically lower,” but the case ended up settling for an undisclosed amount in June.

U.S. law allows for damage awards between $750 and $30,000, with no more than $150,000 for an intentional violation.

Sanders represents other photographers, too, including Josiah Kamau, who on Sept. 1 settled a copyright lawsuit brought in the Central District against Bieber over his use of a photo Kamau took of Bieber and his wife, Hailey Rhode Bieber. Along with Barbera’s lawsuit against Cyrus, Sanders also on Friday filed suit against Music Connection Inc. for its use of a photograph of Eddie Van Halen that’s copyrighted to photographer David Plastik.

(Image: Photo by Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

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A graduate of the University of Oregon, Meghann worked at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, before moving to California in 2013 to work at the Orange County Register. She spent four years as a litigation reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and one year as a California-based editor and reporter for and associated publications such as The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal before joining Law & Crime News. Meghann has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, The Forward, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Laguna Beach Independent. Her Twitter coverage of federal court hearings in a lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles placed 1st in the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards for Best Use of Social Media by an Independent Journalist in 2021. An article she freelanced for Los Angeles Times Community News about a debate among federal judges regarding the safety of jury trials during COVID also placed 1st in the Orange County Press Club Awards for Best Pandemic News Story in 2021.