Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 12, 2015

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Lawyers are using an unexpected weapon to fight revenge porn: copyright law.

Copyrighted PhotoAs reported in the New York Times, a big California law firm has filed suit on behalf of a law student who had sexually explicit pictures of herself posted on pornography sites by a former boyfriend.

The couple apparently had a long-distance relationship, with the student on the West Coast and the boyfriend on the East Coast. The woman took the pictures and videos herself and sent them to her then-boyfriend.

After the couple ended their relationship, the former boyfriend told the student by phone that he intended to ruin her life.

The former boyfriend then allegedly sent the pictures to the student’s personal and professional acquaintances and posed as her online on OkCupid, encouraging other men to send her their own explicit photos and to visit her at home for the purpose of having sex. He provided the student’s cell phone number to those seeking to contact her.

After the student contacted her ex-boyfriend’s mother, he allegedly promised to remove her contact information from the pornography sites, but he failed to do so.

The complaint, filed by the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project of the law firm K&L Gates LLP, seeks damages for violations of US copyright law and for causing the woman emotional distress.

The website for the project defines revenge porn as:

a form of sexual abuse that involves the distribution of nude/sexually explicit photos and/or videos of an individual without their consent. Revenge porn, sometimes called nonconsensual pornography, is usually posted by a scorned ex-lover or friend, in order to seek revenge after a relationship has gone sour.

The Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project was founded to help victims of revenge porn by giving them legal help on a pro bono (free) basis.

Copyright and Porn

According to the project website, 80% of the victims of revenge porn took the photos at issue themselves. This means that they are the “authors” of those photographs and own the copyrights.

This also suggests, of course, that people who do not wish to become the victims of revenge porn should avoid taking revealing pictures of themselves and sending them to others.

However, not all revealing pictures posted online were ever shared with anyone, as the recent hack attacks against Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities show.

Copyright in a Performance

A controversial recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals could also provide another way to fight revenge porn.

The court ruled, in a case involving the scurrilous short film known as “The Innocence of Muslims,” that an actress who appeared in just a few seconds of that film owned the copyright in her performance and thus could have the film removed from YouTube on the basis of copyright infringement.

The same principle can arguably be applied to take down pornographic images that were not authored by those they depict.

Victimization

According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative website, victims of revenge porn are not only publicly humiliated. They may also be threatened, stalked, or subjected to unwanted sexual advances. They may be fired or asked to leave their schools. Some victims have even committed suicide.

If you’ve been the victim of a revenge porn attack…

If you’ve been the victim of revenge porn attack, you may wish to contact a tort lawyer who deals with privacy-related offenses and/or with a copyright attorney. You may also wish to contact the police.