A gut-wrenching mobile video clip depicting South Carolina police officer Michael Slager killing Walter Scott went viral earlier this month. The bystander behind the footage, Feidin Santana, has partnered with celebrity publicity agency Markson Sparks to license the footage, causing a stir among those who claim he's profiting from a death.
It was all over the news last week: Shaky cell phone footage shows officer Slager shooting an unarmed man who tried to flee a routine traffic stop on April 4th. Within days, a frightened bystander who caught it all on camera shared the footage with the victim's family. The video clip was broadcast around the world, including over one million views on YouTube, and the officer has since been arrested and charged with murder.
Seeking Profit From Tragedy?
This week, Santana's new publicist has put a stop to unlicensed broadcast of the clip, sending cease-and-desist letters to major news networks unless they pay up—a one-time fee rumored to be as much as $10,000. The move has left many to wonder if it's ethical to seek profit from the clip, and whether it may even fall under the fair use doctrine.
As photographers, we license our photos and footage regularly throughout our course of business. At one time or another, most of us have felt the sting of finding our work used without permission or payment, but no one questions the ethics of sending cease-and-desist letters over a commercial stock photo.
Those in the field of photojournalism have a more daunting role, with many capturing horrific scenes in conflict zones and licensing the resulting images as part of a normal day's work. It's certainly the darker side of the industry, but it's standard protocol, with the most socially relevant and exclusive content yielding the highest monetary rewards.
Santana's lawyer, Todd Rutherford, defended the prospect of licensing the clip, telling the New York Times, "The search for justice is served by turning the video over to law enforcement," while the news, he said, appears to be in the "search for revenue."
The Rise of Citizen Journalism
Affordable technology has brought a rise in citizen journalism.
More than fifty years ago in Dallas, Texas, Abraham Zapruder was a bystander to President Kennedy's assassination and caught the historical moment in a now infamous 26-second clip. The offers poured in, and he eventually sold the film and rights to Life magazine for $150,000. Decades later, the clip was declared public property, and Zapruder's family was compensated with $16 million by the U.S. government.
In 1991, the beating of Rodney King during an arrest by LAPD officers was videotaped by George Holliday from his apartment balcony. Holliday would come to regret selling the tape for a mere $500. Months later, Timothy Goldman earned tens of thousands of dollars licensing his own footage of the Los Angeles riots.
But not everyone is out for a payday. Adam Stacey was trapped underground during the London bombings in 2006, and ultimately released his photo of the incident to Creative Commons, which allows others to use the image for free. He told the BBC, "I didn't think of the image as my property. It would have seemed so mercenary to make money from it."
What Do You Think?
Santana's publicist, Max Markson, who's represented clients such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Nelson Mandela, makes no apologies for seeking a license fee for Santana's clip, telling Fairfax Media:
"This is what I do for a living. I license footage. Media organisations [sic] who want to use the footage, they've had their fair use of it. If they want to continue using it, we'll issue them with cease-and-desist letters. They'll need to license it. There's nothing underhand or wrong about this."
How do you feel about payouts for citizen journalists? Is it unethical or justified? Share your opinion in the comments below.