It may be the most notorious kinda-sorta car chase since O.J. Simpson soft-pedaled a Ford Bronco across the L.A. freeway nearly 30 years ago. Earlier this month, following a dinner in New York City honoring Meghan Markle for her advocacy work, the Duchess of Sussex and her gingersnap Prince Harry said they were involved in a “near catastrophic car chase” by paparazzi hell-bent on their money shot. But almost immediately the account was called into question. Even New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who described the incident to reporters as “reckless and irresponsible,” professed some doubt: “I would find it hard to believe there was a two-hour high-speed chase, but we will find out the exact duration of it.”
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Yikes. Two days later, perhaps charred by the blowback, the couple, vis a vis their lawyers, ordered the California-based celebrity photo agency Backgrid to turn over its images from the alleged pursuit. It was a presumptuous ask, delivered with a kind of pomp more familiar to Buckingham footmen than Hollywood paps. (“We hereby demand … ,” it purportedly began.) Even in Hollywood, ground zero for do you know who I am? arm-twisting, it ranked right up there with the Beyoncé publicist who asked Buzzfeed to remove from the site unflattering photos of the star’s 2013 Super Bowl performance. Pfffft. As if.
Backgrid lawyers seized on the ridiculous ask. Only this was no regular “Dear Sir: Please be advised” kiss-off. Backgrid fired back with a singularly sneering response, dripping with icy satisfaction. Cue up the Hamilton soundtrack cuz Backgrid ain’t throwing away its shot on this one:
“In America, as I’m sure you know, property belongs to the owner of it: Third parties cannot just demand it be given to them, as perhaps Kings can do … Perhaps you should sit down with your client and advise them that his English rules of royal prerogative to demand that the citizenry hand over their property to the Crown were rejected by this country long ago. We stand by our founding fathers.”
In Hollywood, lawyers typically leave the theatrics to their clients, but the retort was so bombastic—so Al Pacino with a flame-thrower levels of histrionic—it naturally became its own story. Deadline politely called it a “blunt rejection,” while the British press practically sucked the gravy off its fingers. “US photo agency refuses to hand over pics of Harry & Meghan because America beat King George III in a war 250 years ago,” declared The Sun.
The Backgrid lawyer who actually penned the sick burn has remained anonymous. Until now.
“It was a galling request,” says Joanna “Jo” Ardalan, 40, a partner at One LLP, a Beverly Hills-based boutique firm specializing in intellectual property and copyright law, which has represented Backgrid for over five years. So galling, says Ardalan, who is also an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School, that she spent a solid two hours crafting a response she hoped would “put them in their place.” Mission accomplished.
“Do they really think they can do that to businesses just trying to do their work?” she snapped.
To be clear, Backgrid hasn’t heard from Team Sussex since the response. And the photos from that night? Ardalan says “they don’t show anything remotely representing a near catastrophe or a two-hour chase through the crowded streets of Manhattan.”
But whether they realized it or not, the Sussexes did more than just flex their self-perceived muscle against the press, their perennial foe, when they sent the missive. They also became an inadvertent billboard for a much, much bigger issue causing serious concern in the creative orbits of Hollywood and beyond: the rights of photographers and other creators to ownership over their work.
Two days after Backgrid flipped Team Sussex lawyers the proverbial bird, the Supreme Court ruled that, in effect, Andy Warhol had appropriated a photo of Prince by celebrity shutterbug Lynn Goldsmith to create one of his iconic silkscreens. She sued when Warhol’s estate later licensed an image of it to Condé Nast for use in one of its magazines. In siding with Goldsmith, the justices ruled that Warhol’s artistic interpretation of the photo didn’t trump Goldsmith’s copyright in it, a decision that sent a palpable shiver down the spine of creative communities around the world. “It strikes at the heart of the way artists today have been raised to make and understand art,” wrote the Brooklyn Museum in an amicus brief filed to the Supreme Court.
But for Ardalan, who also represents Backgrid in a suit against Twitter for not policing copyrighted photos on its platform, it was a validation of sorts, a win for much-maligned celebrity photographers. “We want to incentivize creators, like photographers. If people like Andy Warhol are free to create derivative works for competing uses, that undermines the photographers’ incentive to create in the first place,” she explained.
For Harry and Meghan, the case underscores the bald absurdity of not just their demand, but their attempts to rewrite the well-established quid pro quo between paparazzi and stars: we give you attention you want, and you let us pay our rent with the fruits of that labor. It also raised uncomfortable questions about the hypocrisy of their position if one is to believe the likes of Megyn Kelly and Piers Morgan, who say Markle alerts photographers when she wants to be snapped. A case of biting the hand that feeds you?
“I don’t know anything about that,” Ardalan said.