A legal battle is unfolding between iconic rock band Guns N' Roses and their photographer of over a decade, Katarina Benzova. Benzova filed a lawsuit in November alleging egregious copyright infringement and sexual harassment by the band's management. Guns N' Roses denies the claims and filed a preemptive countersuit challenging Benzova's copyright ownership.
Benzova provided tour photography for Guns N' Roses starting in 2010. Her lawsuit asserts she worked 364 concerts for the band until being terminated in 2022. During that time, she alleges the band reproduced, publicly displayed, and sold her photographs without permission after she retained copyrights to the images, including deliberately altering them to hide the violations.
Even more troublingly, Benzova accuses Guns N' Roses manager Fernando Lebeis of repeated sexual harassment and hostile retaliation when she rejected his advances. The lawsuit describes persistent unwelcome sexual propositions, verbal abuse, psychological manipulation, and bullying from Lebeis over multiple years.
As Benzova continually denied Lebeis, he allegedly lowered her pay without notice, forced her to cover travel costs, denied expenses, and relegated her to subpar hotel rooms on tours. Benzova believes she was targeted for termination in 2022 based on spurning Lebeis, while male photographers were retained.
Guns N' Roses vigorously contests Benzova's lawsuit as “categorically and unequivocally false” in their official statement. The band highlights Benzova signing agreements on multiple tours declaring all photos taken were "work-for-hire" and fully owned by Guns N' Roses.
In October, weeks before Benzova's filing, Guns N' Roses preemptively sued Benzova challenging her copyright claims. Their legal team argues Benzova has no ownership rights based on her signed contracts.
This complex legal fight underscores crucial copyright lessons for tour and live music photographers. Benzova assumed she retained rights absent written transfers, while Guns N' Roses asserts broad work-for-hire rights over all images shot.
Who prevails depends on the strength of Benzova's contracts weighed against industry norms. Bands often do wield expansive copyright control over contracted photographers. Yet, questions loom whether restrictions on Benzova's licensing rights after the tours ended overreached. And in this case, there is the added element of the sexual harassment allegations against Lebeis.
Ultimately, the courts must parse complex details of contracts, conduct, and business relationships between creatives and clients to deliver justice. This case underscores the vital need for clear written agreements defining copyright ownership and conduct standards upfront, especially since bands wield disproportionate power to exploit creatives struggling for exposure. Ethics demand level playing fields to foster artistic growth on both sides.
Update: A representative of Guns N' Roses clarified the lawsuit only covers the alleged copyright infringement and released the following statement:
"Ms. Benzova was initially contracted to provide tour photography services for Guns N’ Roses in 2010. She worked with the band for 12 years and was paid and treated extraordinarily well. It was only after her services were discontinued in 2022 that she attempted to claim ownership in photos which her contract clearly states are owned by the band. The band takes these types of claims very seriously however all evidence establishes these accusations are categorically and unequivocally false. This response from her comes after the band initiated suit against Ms. Benzova for falsely asserting ownership in the photos of the band.”
Lead image by Carlos Varela, used under Creative Commons.