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In defense of Justin Bieber

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 8:37 PM EDT, Wed May 30, 2012
 Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez watch the San Antonio Spurs play the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles.
Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez watch the San Antonio Spurs play the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Justin Bieber allegedly lashed out at a photographer trying to get pics of him and girlfriend
  • Dean Obeidallah says the issue is whether paparazzi should stalk celebs and their families
  • He asks: Why should paparazzi profit off images of celebrities without their consent?
  • Law should provide that celebs must give consent, with exceptions for news, he writes

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report" and co-director of the upcoming documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- "Justin Bieber accused of roughing up photographer." When I read this headline, my initial reaction was: Who would admit to being beaten up by Justin Bieber?

I think most of us would take that secret with us to our grave.

For those unfamiliar with Bieber -- if that's even possible -- he's an 18-year-old international pop sensation who stands at an imposing 5 feet 7 inches and probably weighs about 135 pounds. But on Sunday, Bieber was accused of channeling his inner Alec Baldwin, lashing out at a member of the paparazzi who was trying to snap some photos of him and his famous girlfriend, Selena Gomez, as the two exited a movie theater.

To me, however, the real issue is not this incident. I predict this matter will be quickly resolved, possibly with a transfer of funds to the photographer's bank account.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

The issue that truly needs to addressed is this the paparazzi's daily pursuit of celebrities as if they were contestants in "The Hunger Games." They stake out hotels, restaurants, schools, homes, trying to snap a photo of a celebrity or their families. The obvious reason is that the photographers sell these photos, and often for big bucks.

Did Bieber brawl with photographer?
Bieber accused of engaging in fight

But why should these photographers be allowed to profit off the images of celebrities without the celebrities' consent? If a corporation wants to use an image of celebrities in an advertising campaign, they must first obtain their approval and typically pay them a fee.

This is because our copyright laws provide that if you take a photo, you own the copyright to that picture. Consequently, members of the paparazzi who snap a photo, even over the objections of the person, are awarded the full bundle of rights afforded by the federal copyright laws, including the right to sell the photo for a profit.

This is simply wrong. Our nation's copyright laws were enacted to protect original works. One of the goals of the law is to foster creativity, so people will invest the skill and effort needed to create works to which they will own exclusive rights, such as books, paintings, music and movies.

No one can argue that people who snap a photo of George Clooney as he exits a Pinkberry eating strawberry frozen yogurt or, worse, hang around outside grammar schools taking photos of someone's children deserve the same legal protection as those who create a movie, music or other work of art.

Our laws should be revised so that the copyright owner would no longer be the photographer who took the photo. Instead, the owner should be the person whose appearance in the photo makes it valuable: the celebrity.

Let's be honest, media outlets aren't buying these photos from the paparazzi because of the photographer's great talent for lighting. It's because the photo contains an image of a celebrity. Why shouldn't the person giving the image its value own the rights to it?

Indeed, our legal system has long recognized that we all have a "right of publicity," which means that we each have the right to control the use of our name, image and likeness. And obviously, this is a bigger issue for well-known people because their images yield a monetary value. To me, the unauthorized taking of person's photo and selling it for profit is akin to stealing a valuable asset from that person.

This statutory revision would remove the financial incentive for the paparazzi to stalk celebrities, because the photos could not be sold or distributed to any third party without the celebrities' consent, with exceptions for occasions that are newsworthy, such as a court appearance or arrest. But walking down the street, going to the gym or taking your children to school should be off-limits.

The definition of "celebrity" and what constitutes a legitimate photograph would be defined by statute and the court decisions interpreting the law. Although this would create a different legal standard for celebrities versus private citizens, our legal system makes a similar distinction in defamation cases, holding public figures to a higher standard of proof than the average person.

I know some people have zero sympathy for stars. True, they have chosen this life, and there are certain consequences that accompany fame. And some have achieved fame with the least talent possible: I'm looking at you, cast of "The Jersey Shore."

But why should a talented singer, musician or actor be sentenced to a life with no privacy simply because of their success? Shouldn't we all have the right to a quiet meal with our family or the chance to walk our children to school without having cameras jammed into our kids' faces?

This doesn't put the paparazzi out of business. There will still be plenty of work taking photos of famous people who consent. Celebrities still need to be in the media and so do their projects.

It will mean only that in normal day-to-day situations, celebrities will be able to retain a shred of privacy and no longer have to worry about paparazzi chasing them as they go food shopping or trying to enjoy "date night," as in the case of the "mighty" Justin Bieber.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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