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Backstory: My friends has a picture of me, which I asked him to delete and not show to people multiple times, but he keeps it and shows it to people no matter how many times I ask him not to. Is it legal to do that?

More Info: I am the original poster, I just uploaded as a guest, so here's more detail: I am from England, I'm a minor (but so is the other person). By showing it to people, I meant sending them a copy. The picture is not intimate.

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    Was the picture taken in a private location or in a public place? Could the picture be somewhat intriguing (e.g. you're naked on it)? And, also important: Who was the photographer? You friend or somebody else?
    – PMF
    Aug 7 at 19:19
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    I think one legal term used to describe this is one's "likeness."
    – Joseph P.
    Aug 8 at 6:46
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    Showing a picture to specific people is different to giving them a copy, which in turn is different to making it available to the public (or displaying it to the public). The answers build on this confusion by using terms like “share”, ”distribute” and “publish”. What is this question really about? Aug 8 at 13:25
  • @Wingman who took the photo?
    – Doktor J
    Aug 8 at 19:37
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    @GregoryCurrie It's not really a problem; people can answer for whichever jurisdiction they want anyway. See the help pages: "Even if you supply a jurisdiction tag, we expect and encourage answers dealing with other jurisdictions – while it might not answer your question directly, your question will be here for others who may be from those jurisdictions."
    – JBentley
    Aug 9 at 10:52

6 Answers 6

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Copyright

The photographer, not the subject(s) own the copyright in the picture. So, unless this was a selfie, you have no rights in the picture.

Privacy

If the photo was taken in circumstances where a reasonable person would expect privacy, then revealing it to others might be a tort of privacy breach. In most common law jurisdictions this area of the law is undeveloped.

However, if the photo was taken from a public place (even if you were in a private place), or with your permission, this doesn’t apply.

Intimate images

In some jurisdictions, the distribution of intimate images without the permission of the subject is a crime. Intimate does not include a photo that is merely embarrassing.

Bullying

This is probably bullying behaviour but bullying per se is generally not illegal.

It might be illegal if the bullying is motivated by a protected characteristic (race, age, gender, sexuality etc.) but that usually requires a context - employment, public accommodation etc. it might also be illegal hate speech even outside such an institutional framework.

Similarly, within an institutional context like a workplace or school there might be policies around bullying; these might have the force of law but are probably quasi-contractural matters.

However, a private person doing it because they don’t like you and want to humiliate or embarrass you is probably not doing anything illegal.

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    Any chance of going around showing people an embarrassing photo could constitute some form of harassment? Aug 8 at 6:03
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    @GregoryCurrie harassment, no - that requires repeated contact with the victim. It might be bullying, some forms of that are illegal
    – Dale M
    Aug 8 at 7:43
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    Does it make any difference if the pictured person is a minor?
    – blues
    Aug 8 at 8:34
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    Might it be covered as some form of inciting others to engage in harassment, even if the person sharing the picture is not themselves making contact with the target when doing it? Aug 8 at 18:00
  • In some jurisdictions, the mere possession of an intimate image of a minor is a crime, far less actually distributing/exhibiting it. Aug 9 at 15:30
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Personality Rights

In many jurisdictions, a person has the property right to control exploitation of a picture of them. This is generally connected to economic exploitation, but a court operating under this doctrine might be open to including non-monetary value deriving from exploitation of the photograph. In the Kenyan case Rukia Idris Barri vs Mada Hotels Ltd, the court agreed that plaintiff's constitutional right to privacy and dignity were interfered with by publishing the photo (which was not apparently itself embarassing).

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Sharing intimate images (e.g. with nudity) without permission is generally illegal.

Beyond that, it heavily depends on jurisdiction.

In the US, for example, you can take and publish someone's photo without consent.

In most of western Europe, on the other hand, consent is required to take and/or publish someone's photo.

* "Publish" here would generally include "spreading it around", but it may also not always be clearcut and may depend on how and to which degree it's being spread around.

This applies to photos taken in public spaces. Photos taken in private spaces may be subject to additional restrictions, and how the photo is being shared may also factor into whether sharing it is illegal.

There's a partial summary of consent requirements for different countries on Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.


A photo of you being shared among your "friends" is generally more of an interpersonal issue (unless it's an intimate image). If they don't stop sharing it after you asked them to stop, they're pretty bad friends and I'd wonder whether you'd be better off without those people in your life. Although you should make it clear to them that it's past being "in good fun", and you consider it to be a violation of your privacy (if applicable) and/or it's very disrespectful towards you to ignore your wishes. That said, you'll need to use your own judgement to determine whether making this clear to them would work and whether them behaving in ways like this is problematic enough for you to potentially end the friendship over if they don't stop, or whether you'd prefer to just try to ignore it or laugh along and hope they lose interest and move on to the next thing soon enough.

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The question title says:

Is it legal to own a photo …

This is an unfortunate wording. Owning a photo (which presumably means owning copyright in that photo) is different to owning a copy of that photo. It seems like this question is about the latter.

The title later says:

… without their permission?

The question body says:

no matter how many times I ask him not to

But merely failing to give consent to something is different to specifically asking for it to not happen.

So there are two questions here:

  1. Is it legal to possess (or continue to possess) a photo of another person?
  2. Is it legal to share that photo?

(in both cases, without the subject’s consent, or despite the subject asking for it to not happen, or both)

Of course, these questions are highly dependent on the jurisdiction, the nature of the photo and, for the second question, the nature of the sharing. A non-exhaustive list of examples is given below. (“Sharing” could mean anything from showing the photo to another person to making copies of the photo available to the public.)

As Dale M’s answer says, there are two aspects to these questions: copyright (which is about the rights of the photographer) and privacy (which is about the rights of the subject).

Coypright

Copyright (to the extent it exists) is generally owned by the photographer, not the subject, unless the photographer is the subject or the photo is a work for hire. Of course, copyright ownership can be transferred.

But if none of these exceptions apply, then the subject has no rights to prevent others from possessing or sharing the photo.

Privacy

Aside from the mostly undeveloped tort of privacy breach discussed in Dale M’s answer, there are various laws that directly address these issues.

Other answers mention various examples. Another example, from Quebec, is Pascale Aubry, who successfully sued a magazine that published her photo without her consent for “the invasion of her privacy”.

Intimate images

Many jurisdictions have laws that specifically address intimate images (those that show intimate body parts or a person engaing in an intimate activity or, in some jurisdictions, a person who is unclothed, in all cases in circumstances where the subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy). Intimate image laws generally prohibit the sharing (and, in some jurisdictions, the taking) of such images without the subject’s consent.

New Zealand’s intimate image law (Crimes Act 1961, sections 216G–216N) and Singapore’s intimate image law (Penal Code 1871, sections 337BB–337BE, with definitions given in section 377C) make it clear that merely showing an intimate image to another person counts as “publishing” or “distributing” it (respectively), which is generally prohibited. South Australia’s intimate image law (Summary Offences Act 1953, part 5A) seems similar. But under Canada’s initimate image law (Criminal Code, section 162.1), it is not so clear (at least on my cursory reading).

Most of these examples do not address the question of possessing the photo. Canada and South Australia’s intimate image laws do not. But New Zealand and Singapore’s intimate image laws do. They generally prohibit possessing an intimate image without the subject’s consent.

Finally, it seems like Australia is an extraordinary special case: under the Online Safety Act 2021, when an intimate image is provided on certain electronic services, the subject (or their representative) may object to that provision (Part 3, Division 3), and the eSafety Commissioner may order the image’s removal (Part 6, Divison 3), even if the subject consented to that provision. It is not clear how the eSafety Commissioner should (or does) make such decisions.

Other special cases

Australia’s Online Safety Act 2021 contains provisions for “cyber-bullying material” (children) or “cyber-abuse material” (adults) similar to those for intimate images: where the subject (or their representative) objects, the eSafety Commissioner may order the material’s removal, even if the subject consented.

South Australia’s Summary Offences Act 1953, headed “Filming and sexting offences”, also contains provisions for “humiliating or degrading filming”, which is where the subject is being subjected to (or compelled to engage in) a humiliating or degrading act. These provisions are similar to those for intimate images, generally prohibiting the sharing (but not possession) of such images without the subject’s consent.

Child abuse material

Of course, child abuse material laws generally prohibit any dealing in child abuse material, including possession and sharing.

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It surely depends on the country.

If you publish the photo in the internet, you have to observe German laws (as an example) if the web site can be visited from a computer located in Germany.

If other countries have similar laws, you will nearly surely break the law of some country if it is not legal to publish the photo in all countries of the world.

According to German law, you can publish photos of crouds of people taken at public events, and photos of people that played a special role in such a public event. (For example a photo of a musician taken while he played a concert in a public place.)

In such cases, you only need the permission of the copyright holder (or no permission at all if the picture is not copyrighted).

In most other cases, you need the permission of the copyright holder AND the person shown on the photo. If the picture is not copyrighted, you still need the permission of the person shown on the photo (at least as long as the person can be identified on the photo).

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  • It's similar in France, the droit à l'image means consent is required for sharing or publishing someone's picture. Exceptions exist for the news, public figures, and public spaces. Exceptions to these exceptions exist for minors (at least under 16), where consent of their legal guardian is generally always required. Aug 9 at 8:17
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I can only speak for the UK, where it counts as cyberbullying and it falls under under the Harassment Act 1997 if it causes alarm or distress to the victim.

The people who said it is not a crime should be aware this is jurisdiction based.

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