The relationship between celebrity and paparazzo is often a contentious one.
Battles between the two have frequently spilled over into courtrooms. NFL star Odell Beckham Jr., the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Bruce Willis have all taken shutterbugs to court over allegations ranging from invasion of privacy to extortion.
Photographers have turned the tables in recent years, initiating a number of lawsuits against celebrities who've posted paparazzi shots of themselves to social media. Dua Lipa, Jennifer Lopez, Liam Hemsworth and Ariana Grande have all faced copyright suits for posting third-party photos to their personal Instagram accounts in recent years.
The reality TV personality was slapped with a federal lawsuit back in June claiming she had infringed the copyright of a paparazzi agency, Backgrid, for posting eight photos of herself and her two model daughters to Instagram. Those photos were allegedly taken by Backgrid photographers.
"I’ve always seen it as a very symbiotic relationship," Rinna told The Los Angeles Times. "I’ve been nice, I’ve never fought with them, I’ve never run from them. My kids grew up with them jumping out of the bushes in Malibu. We’ve had a very good relationship with the press and the paparazzi. That’s why this is so shocking to me."
According to Backgrid's complaint, Rinna's postings inflicted $1.2 million in damages on the agency. Backgrid also asked the court to formally enjoin the star from continuing to post paparazzi photos on her personal social media accounts without licensing them first.
While $1.2 million may seem like an arbitrarily high award, the calculation came from the text of the Copyright Act itself. The law provides for damages of up to $150,000 for each act of "willful" infringement. Multiplied by eight, the maximum infringement award for all Backgrid photos Rinna allegedly posted to her Instragam page would produce exactly $1.2 million in damages.
In her reply, Rinna's attorney's accused Backgrid of "weaponizing" the Copyright Act to recoup revenues the agency likely lost during the bulk of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were no red carpet events to cover, and celebrities were by and large staying cooped up at home.
The response also noted that paparazzi were losing money due to mask mandates, which rendered celebrities in public space almost unrecognizable, and any resulting photos of them worthless.
Alleged abuse of the Copyright Act left Backgrid with "unclean hands," Rinna's attorneys contended—a common defense which asserts a plaintiff cannot benefit from suits filed unethically.
She has also couched her use of the photos in fair use doctrine, an exception to copyright law that allows for uses of copyrighted material for limited journalistic, critical and academic purposes. Rinna claimed posting the photos to her Instagram account qualified as fair use-protected commentary from which she earned no income.
Whether that theory will stick is yet unknown. Model Emily Ratajkowski made a similar argument in her own infringement battle against paparazzi, which is pending before a federal jury.
Rinna's attorneys have also called on lawmakers to fundamentally change federal copyright law, reducing damages in instances where defendants have posted images of their own likenesses, or likenesses of family members. Such a change would require a bill in Congress, however.
Intellectual property lawyer Neel Chatterjee, interviewed by The Times, seemed to think such a radical change of law was unlikely, and maintained the best route for celebrities sued by paparazzi for infringement was to simply pay settlements.
"At some level, this is the price tag of social media and paparazzi converging," he said. "In a sense, it’s the cost of doing business if you’re a celebrity and you’re living off promotion of your own image."