Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony

111 U.S. 53 (1884)

Napoleon Sarony, the plaintiff in this case, was America's most famous portrait photographer in the latter half of the 19th Century. Before picking up the camera, he was already well-known as an accomplished lithographer.

Oscar Wilde is one of the most famous Irish authors of all time, renowned for works like The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. In the early 1880's, before these books were even published, Wilde had already become famous for his public lectures. In 1882, Wilde crossed the U.S. on a wildly successful speaking tour. During this time, he posed for the infamous photo. (Another picture from the same shoot can be seen here.)

A retail store in New York City, Ehrich Brothers, commissioned Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. to print an advertisement for hats, in which it used this photo. Over 85,000 copies of the ad were made by the time Sarony brought the publishers to court.

The Supreme Court's opinion firmly resolved the question of whether a photograph could be copyrighted. It is unknown if Wilde ever knew of his involvement in one of the biggest copyright cases in United States history. Unfortunately, years later, Wilde was publicly disgraced after being convicted and jailed for "gross indecency" (i.e. having a homosexual relationship). After being released from prison, he died penniless in a Paris hotel.