In an era dominated by visual media and digital presence, the concept of copyright extends beyond traditional artworks and literary creations.

The intriguing inquiry arises: Can a person’s face be subjected to copyright protection?

This article explores the subject matter “Are people’s faces copyrighted” and provides you with a thoughtful analysis of it.

Are People’s Faces Copyrighted?

It might sound strange, but claiming a copyright for faces raises some interesting questions.

Imagine if every time someone snapped a photo with you in the background, they needed your permission to use it. That would make things pretty complicated, right?

But here’s the deal: instead of copyright, we have something called “personality rights.” This means your appearance and your voice are special to you.

Nobody can just use them to advertise things without asking for your permission first.

If someone wants to put your face in an ad, they have to get your agreement in writing. And if they want to make products with your image on them, like t-shirts or mugs, they can’t do it without your say-so either.

Your unique look belongs to you!

What’s the Deal with Celebrities?

Interestingly, celebrities also don’t possess a copyright on their faces. However, the dynamics change when it comes to businesses using their images.

For instance, consider the case of Topshop in London, which obtained the rights to a photograph of Rihanna from a copyright-owning photographer.

Topshop then utilised the image on clothing for sale. Rihanna took legal action and emerged victorious under the legal principle known as “passing off.”

Originally designed to prevent companies from misleading customers by pretending to be another brand, passing off has broader implications.

It applies when a company’s packaging resembles another business’s, leading customers to unknowingly purchase their product instead.

In Rihanna’s case, the court ruled in her favor due to her extensive commercial use of her image and the reputation she had built around it.

Given her image’s strong association with her brand, Topshop’s use of her likeness on clothing misled customers into thinking that Rihanna had endorsed their products.

Legal Options and Limitations

When it comes to facial recognition technology and its potential privacy concerns, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established strict regulations.

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While the FTC aims to enforce these rules rigorously, privacy advocates advocate for even stronger safeguards.

Some have suggested the notion of copyrighting facial features or faceprints as a protective measure, but this proposal clashes with constitutional principles.

The constitution dictates that only the creator of a photograph can initially secure copyright.

Unlike England’s historical approach, where copyright-like privileges were granted to the Stationer’s Company for about 150 years, the U.S. follows the principle that copyright can solely be granted to the individual responsible for producing a particular work.

Furthermore, Congress is prohibited from allowing copyright for facts.

The aim is to keep facts accessible to all, rather than restricting them to a single person for their lifetime plus an additional 70 years.

The idea of copyrighting facial features seems implausible, especially in today’s technologically advanced world.

The prevalence of accidental captures in smartphone photos would make avoiding copyright infringement nearly impossible.

In cases of copyright infringement, statutory damages range from $750 to $30,000.

Even if a court determines that the use of a photo qualifies as fair use, the process still incurs substantial administrative costs and invites courts to introduce their own subjective perspectives into the equitable doctrine analysis.

The Artistry of Makeup: Legal Dimensions

While many may view skillful makeup application as a form of artistry, it’s essential to understand that crafting an individual look doesn’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of intellectual property (IP) protection—unless, of course, it’s stage makeup for a theatrical production like Cats.

In a landmark case, Cats successfully argued that their stage makeup should be safeguarded by copyright law due to its fixed nature, even when actors changed.

This elevated stage makeup to the level of choreography, recognising its role as a creative component of the performance.

In certain cases, innovative makeup applications might find protection under trademark law.

Unique stage makeup, exemplified by Gene Simmons’ iconic full-face makeup in Kiss, can be trademarked under the Lanham Act.

It’s important to note that copyright and trademark laws diverge in their functions: copyright shields original creations, while trademark safeguards distinctive symbols, images, and words used to signify goods or services in commercial enterprises.

However, day-to-day makeup doesn’t qualify as protected creative work.

Even special makeup designed for events like proms, weddings, or red-carpet appearances falls outside the protective ambit.

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Although wedding and fashion photographers might acknowledge makeup artists in their portfolios or magazine spreads, legal requirements don’t necessitate this.

Legally, photographers retain full rights over the end product, and makeup artists lack the authority to use these photos in their portfolios without explicit permission.

Using Celebrity Images on T-Shirts: Legal Considerations

Using celebrity photos on t-shirts can be a legal gray area that requires careful consideration of intellectual property rights and potential legal ramifications.

Here are some key points to keep in mind:

1. Right of Publicity: Celebrities have a legal right to control the commercial use of their likeness, known as the “right of publicity.” Using a celebrity’s image on a t-shirt without their permission could infringe on this right and lead to legal action.

2. Copyright Issues: Images of celebrities may be protected by copyright if they are owned by a photographer, artist, or agency. Using copyrighted images without obtaining the necessary permissions could result in copyright infringement claims.

3. Fair Use Doctrine: Under certain circumstances, using a celebrity image on a t-shirt could be considered “fair use” if it serves a transformative, educational, or commentary purpose. However, fair use can be complex and is determined on a case-by-case basis.

4. Licensing and Releases: To use a celebrity image legally, you usually need to obtain a license or release from the celebrity or their authorised representative. This grants you the right to use their likeness for commercial purposes.

5. Celebrity Endorsement: Using a celebrity’s image on a t-shirt might give the impression of an endorsement or affiliation. If the celebrity hasn’t actually endorsed the product, this could lead to confusion or legal issues.

6. Parody and Satire: Parody and satire are protected forms of expression, but even in these cases, it’s important to consider potential legal challenges and consult legal advice.


In the realm of copyright law, the concept of whether people’s faces can be copyrighted presents a complex landscape.

While individuals themselves don’t hold copyrights over their own faces, the realm of celebrity and personal rights plays a significant role.

Copyright issues tied to the images of a real person, deceased celebrities, or an anonymous person are often subject to legal battles.

The copyright owner or holder of an image possesses exclusive rights, yet certain exceptions, such as fair use or images in the public domain, should also be considered.

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Basic copyright standards should guide our understanding while seeking legal advice and can provide crucial insights into navigating this intricate territory.


Can I copyright my own face?

No, copyright protection doesn’t extend to your facial features. However, other legal avenues, like personality rights and trademark laws, may come into play.

What are personality rights?

Personality rights protect your voice and appearance. They prevent the unauthorised use of your likeness for promotional purposes without your permission.

Can businesses use my image without permission?

Generally, businesses need a signed model release to use your image for commercial purposes. Unauthorised use could lead to legal disputes.

Can I copyright everyday makeup or special event makeup?

No, regular or special event makeup typically doesn’t qualify for copyright protection.

Can photographers credit makeup artists for their work?

While photographers may credit makeup artists, they legally hold full rights to the finished product, and makeup artists can’t use the photos in their portfolios without permission.

Can I use stock photos of people without permission?

Stock photos come with specific usage rights. Follow the terms of the stock photo provider’s license agreement.

Are there exceptions for images of public figures?

While there may be exceptions, public figures still have rights over their images. Commercial use without permission could lead to legal issues.