A Houston-based freelance photographer is suing the city’s biggest sports star, Deshaun Watson, for copyright infringement, contending that the Houston Texans quarterback posted three of his photos on Instagram without permission.
Aaron Sprecher, a veteran photojournalist and independent contributor to The Associated Press, alleged in a lawsuit filed in federal court Monday that Watson violated copyright law by using at least three images of himself that Sprecher shot without obtaining a license from Sprecher, the AP, the NFL or the Texans to do so. He is seeking unspecified damages, including lost licensing revenue and any profit gained by Watson based on the use of the photos.
Lawsuits of this nature against public figures in both sports and entertainment have become more common in recent years and are likely to proliferate as these individuals embrace social media. The case against Watson is similar to a suit filed against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James by photographer Steven Mitchell in March, which accused James and his associated companies, Uninterrupted Digital Ventures and LRMR Ventures, of posting a slam dunk photo taken by Mitchell on James’ Facebook page without a license. A judge last week transferred that case from the District Court for the Southern District of New York to that of the Central District of California.
To avoid licensing issues and help athletes build their online presences, college athletic programs and sports properties have turned to software companies like INFLCR and Greenfly to give their athletes easy access to in-house or licensed content they can use on their personal social media accounts.
Several celebrities have faced lawsuits for posting photos of themselves on social media without a license, with differing outcomes. Supermodel Gigi Hadid last year beat a copyright infringement suit because the plaintiff in the case failed to obtain copyright registration of the work of the photo prior to filing the lawsuit. In a separate case filed in April, a photographer is seeking $150,000 in damages from singer Jennifer Lopez for posting an image on Instagram without authorization.
Sprecher snapped two of the photos at the heart of the lawsuit ahead of a 2017 game between the Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals: one of Watson in a suit wearing headphones and another of Watson in uniform ready to take the field. Both of those photos, which have more than 35,000 likes and 95,000 likes, respectively, are still up on Watson’s account as of Tuesday.
A third photo, which Sprecher took of Watson signing autographs at a Pro Bowl practice in January at Walt Disney World Resort in Kissimmee, Fla., is no longer posted on Watson’s account, but the suit claims the January post received more than 44,000 likes before being removed.
The lawsuit cites the Texans and the NFL as saying that they did not provide Watson with Sprecher’s photos.
Watson’s representatives declined to comment through the Texans organization, and Sprecher’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Watson, the Texans’ first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, has 1.4 million followers on Instagram. Prior to joining the Texans, he made a name for himself at Clemson University, where he led the Tigers to a national championship. In a June survey conducted by Morning Consult, NFL fans ranked Watson 24th among skill position players in terms of net favorability.