Why is it OK for celebrities to use other people’s art for commercial purposes without permission?

Time and time again we hear about singers and other types of celebrities getting sued over their use of other people’s art without permission or credit, and in many cases those pieces are used for commercial purposes. The latest allegation comes from artist Danny Quirk, whose art was taken without permission by none other than Madonna.

Back in January, it came to my attention that Madonna’s social media team had been using a series of 3 of images in a campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with her head superimposed on my paintings to promote her new album “Rebel Heart”. I didn’t want to make a big stink about things just because it was a high profile name, but despite my messages / emails to Liz Rosenburg (her agent) commenting on the said social media posts, and the MANY posts of people defending the work / calling her out on it, the messages were overlooked and ignored, and the work was never credited.

Doing the math, off of Instagram, the images got a collected 145,000 + likes, on Facebook, some 77,000+ likes, and Twitter, about 1,000+reposts. That’s some serious exposure that was leeched from me and my art, and used to promote her agenda.


Since the Rebel Heart tour kicked off, I found out the art is being used on her tour from a friend who recognized the work during the show. I’ve seen at least 4 YouTube videos that show it, as it’s part of a loop played during her song “Rebel Heart”. Granted it’s a SMALL part of the show, but I was never A.) asked, and B.) COMPLETELY ignored when I called her staff / team out on improper use of my creative property.

That’s awful coming from an artist worth like $800 million. The photoshop job is also awful, but let’s not get sidetracked here. Considering that singers know what is like to have their work used without permission, one would think they would relate and not pull this kind of antics, but it’s easy for them to claim the things they “borrow” as public domain.

The worst part is that many relatively unknown artists don’t fight back because they don’t have the means to hire a lawyer, and because many times the “your art is not copyrighted, so it’s public domain” phrase comes up into the conversation, making the original artists have doubts about their chances of winning a case against people or companies using and even selling their art.

To make matters worse, this is something that happens quite a often. After a quick Google search I came up with the following results:

  • Back in 2013 Lil’ Kim took a photograph of a makeup artist in zombie makeup (it was a photograph of the actual artist), slapped her logo on it, used it for her social media accounts, and even used the picture as album art. All of that without giving credit to the makeup artist.


  • In 2014 visual artist Maya Hayuk (left) sued Sara Bareilles and her record company for the use of her mural “Chem Trails NYC” as a backdrop for numerous promotional pictures and videos of the pop star without Hayuk’s knowledge or permission. They were used to promote Bareilles’ music and concert tour.


  • Also last year, the rapper known as Mase was sued for using a photograph from model Stephanie Delgado’s Instagram as artwork without her permission to promote his single, “Why Can’t We.”


  • Joseph Tierney, a street artist who goes by the name Rime, sued Italian fashion firm Moschino and designer Jeremy Scott for copyright infringement and misappropriation after they allegedly used his graffiti art on their expensive outfits, one of which was worn by singer Katy Perry at a high-profile event in New York City. Katy Perry was apparently paid to wear said dress.


  • Freelance photographer Giordano Cipriani filed the lawsuit against Kendrick Lamar for the use of his photo of a mother breastfeeding two children, which he shot in 2011 on a trip to Africa. Lamar used it as the artwork for his single, “The Blacker the Berry.”


  • Fine art photographer Laura Ferreira from Trinidad and Tobago found out that one of her photos of a woman in a carnival costume was being used by rapper T.I. to promote a big party that he was throwing. When he was called out on it he threw a tantrum, insulted the photographer, and still used giant-size versions of the artwork on the walls on his party.


  • Rapper “The Game” is being sued by rapper and designer Ariza Obey over the artwork for “Ryda,” his single with Dej Loaf. The Game allegedly took this photograph and repurposed the artwork in a brown tone.


And as a change of pace, the time the so called “artist” known as Richard Prince used other people’s Instagram photo posts in an exhibition without their permission, and then sold the prints for $90,000 a piece.


I never understood why Instagram let him off without a fight, but I guess it comes down to a phrase I read some time ago; “If you aren’t paying for service you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

In general it would be nice and wise if celebrities and companies stopped stealing artwork for commercial uses. I’m almost certain that it’s pretty infuriating to the original artists to have their pieces get so much recognition under other people’s name and without a single mention, so at least ask beforehand.

TL;DR stop stealing other people’s work and passing it as your own.

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