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Home | Mises Library | The Case of the Paparazzi

The Case of the Paparazzi

  • Bratislava_Bronze_Paparazzo.jpg

Tags Media and CulturePhilosophy and Methodology

11/05/2003Erich Mattei

Photographers characterized by dynamic and often times aggressive tactics used in efforts to get that "million-dollar-shot" or "cover-photo" of celebrities, have established, for themselves, their own division of the media profession. Labeled as "paparazzi," in honor of Signor Paparazzo, a character in a film by Federico Fellini, these freelancers will go to virtually any lengths to catch that perfect photograph.

The services provided by the paparazzi are subject to market discipline. Those who do not succeed in taking photographs demanded by publishers and the buying public do not earn monetary compensation. If enough people find their work unseemly, demand for their services go down and the paparazzi will move onto other lines of work. But so long as they provide publishers and consumers what they want, freelance celebrity photography will continue to be in demand and people will be drawn to this line of work.

The controversy over the paparazzi, however, does not concern their economic value. It concerns their ethics. So let us to turn to this issue. Although the means such individuals will take to achieve their ends are often times perceived as offensive and harmful to the celebrities at the focal point of such activities, are the paparazzi actually committing crimes? Further, should legal ramifications be fashioned to limit the paparazzi's actions? An analysis of the arguments opposing paparazzi that the fiendish acts of photography,   albeit not necessarily ethical, can rarely be branded as criminal.     

The initial evaluation one must make when determining whether or not an action is legitimately criminal, and thus could justifiably be made illegal, is whether the actor violates another individual's property rights. Libertarians refer to this idea as the "non-aggression axiom," a reflection of every individual's natural rights protecting them from involuntary coercive force, the only basis for valid criminality of actions.

In the case of the belligerent paparazzi, one must take note of any violation of the celebrity's property rights, the supposed "victim" of the paparazzi's plot. Contrary to mainstream understanding, harm to an individual does not make a violation of that individual's property inevitable.

For instance, suppose two young men, A and B, are wishing to ask the same young woman out for a date. If young man A asks first and the young woman accepts the invitation, young man B will probably perceive some level of harm. But, were any of young man B's property rights violated?  Clearly the answer to this question, assuming no illicit activities or threats took place against young man B, is no.

The paparazzi-celebrity case presents a similar situation as this example. Although a celebrity may feel some level of harm from the acts of the paparazzi, a violation of property rights is not guaranteed. Therefore, one can deduce that an act is only criminal when the harm perceived by the 'unfortunate' party arises out of a violation of that party's property rights.  

A common case celebrities present against the paparazzi is that they are guilty of assault. Once again, an analysis of the nature of paparazzi activities is necessary before passing judgment on such an allegation. In accordance with the aforementioned validity of a criminal act bringing harm in conjunction with a property rights violation, in contrast to a non-criminal act wherein harm does not arise from a property rights violation, a clear definition of assault must be constructed. In order for assault, be it physical or verbal, to be legitimately criminal it must pose a threat to violate property rights.

This idea is similar to the distinguishing element between simple blackmail and extortion. Although each act is a threat coupled with a demand, extortion consists of a threat to violate a property right or contract, whereas blackmail poses no such threat.1 Just as the blackmailer fails to threaten an individual's property rights, the paparazzi, assuming they are not bound by contract, fail to violate any property rights, and hence cannot be justifiably accused of assault.   

Another pair of accusations celebrities set forth upon paparazzi relate to ownership. The first, concerning ownership of photos, charges paparazzi with theft on the grounds that individuals own images of themselves. This accusation fails to realize the very basis of property rights. Stephen Kinsella eloquently defines the purpose of property rights stating that they exist "to allocate ownership [of] scarce resources to a specified owner…. Thus, it is only things that are scarce… that can be property."  

Scarce resources are homesteaded as property to alleviate controversy over their usage and allocation. The fact of the matter is that an image, be it perceived by an individual through their sight or captured in a photograph, does not restrict others from witnessing the same image. An individual cannot have ownership over another individual's senses or abilities to utilize those senses.

Another property issue that celebrities raise against the paparazzi is that photographs occasionally taint the reputations of the individuals they capture. Such allegations acquire popular support, and from time to time favorable judicial verdicts, given the mainstream belief that an individual's reputation is that individual's property. An individual's reputation is, in reality, nothing more than the subjective opinions others hold about that individual, thus an individual has no ownership over their reputation.2  In light of these ownership clarifications, any attempts to bring the paparazzi before the courts on the basis of theft or damage to an individual's reputation are illegitimate given the fact that, once again, no property rights are violated.               

In conclusion, there are only two valid arguments opposing paparazzi activities in which property rights are violated. The first, pertaining to acts committed on private property, applies not to the harm to the celebrity, but rather the trespassing paparazzi would commit to achieve their ends. Prohibition of paparazzi and their acts would be the result of such decisions by the property owner.

Conversely, tolerance for such individuals and actions would also be at the discretion of the owner, therefore celebrities could be exposed to paparazzi if they are on such property. The only other bona fide claim against paparazzi actions would be that the uninvited flashes of the cameras create "visual pollution."  Similar to the case condemning "noise pollution", bearing uninvited, unavoidable features, and impairing an individual's ability to hear other sounds, "visual pollution" violates an individual's sight. These claims against paparazzi actions are the only two that realize a legitimate violation of property rights, and justify indictment for such actions.

One notices in the analysis of paparazzi and individual property rights that the underlying cause of any debatable occurrence regarding paparazzi activities is a "tragedy of the commons."  As is the case with any incident within the arena of public or unowned property, be it public goods or public services, the involved parties in the paparazzi-celebrity case face a conflict of interests. The only clear-cut solution would exist within an absolute free market whereby privatization would alleviate many social disputes and disturbances individuals face today. 

  • 1. For a critical defense of the "blackmailer" see: Block, Walter. Defending the Undefendable. San Francisco: Fox and Wilkes. 1991. pp. 44-49.
  • 2. For a critical defense of the "slanderer" and "libeler" see: Block, Walter. Defending the Undefendable. San Francisco: Fox and Wilkes. 1991. pp. 50-53.
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