Lords’ OK! ruling creates image rights monopoly

The House of Lords has ruled in favour of OK! magazine in its battle against Hello!, transforming the law on image rights in the process.

The Law Lords ruled three to two in favour of OK! in a rare split judgment that looks like increasing the power that celebrities have over their image.

The decision has given image right protection to all aspects of an event, such as a football match or celebrity wedding, not just the images.

Any right that can be considered valuable and exclusive is now protected under IP law as long as notice is given.

Matthew Higdon, partner at m law and adviser to Hello!, said: “It’s a very important decision in favour of the super rich and celebrities. It really does strengthen the monopolies of rights owners.

“It’s a great day for Rupert Murdoch and media owners, the value of their rights will increase.”

Higdon said even the results of football matches may be protected under the new law, meaning the BBC would not be able to broadcast football league scores that were televised on ITV.

Richard Slowe, litigation partner at SJ Berwin for OK!, said: “Basically what they say is that it’s not just photographs now that have confidentiality in an event. It’s the way that celebrities can now control the press, which has become extraordinarily intrusive. It does limit the press.”

The legal costs, estimated at around £8m, are another bone of contention with Hello! claiming they will be split while OK! believes that Hello! should pay up.

The dispute began in 2000 when Hello! published pictures of the wedding between Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, despite OK! having paid £1m for the exclusive.

The High Court found this caused commercial damage to OK! and awarded damages of £1m. Hello! managed to overturn the order in the Court of Appeal, arguing that spoiler pictures were common in the magazine industry.

There were dissenting voices in the judgment. Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe said: “In respectful disagreement with Lord Hoffmann I think it would go some way to creating an unorthodox and exorbitant form of intellectual property.”

Higdon said: “To see a split judgment like this on IP in the House of Lords is extremely rare. They clearly had large problems with the judgment, taking six months over it.”

SJ Berwin acted for OK!, instructing Richard Millett QC at Essex Court Chambers. M law acted for Hello!, instructing James Price QC at 5 Raymond Buildings.