Five-Ring Circus

Usain Bolt Took a Bunch of Photos with a Swedish Guy’s Camera. Who Owns the Rights to the Sprinter’s Snapshots?

Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt takes pictures of Yohan Blake after the men’s 200-meter final at the London Olympics.

Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/GettyImages

After becoming the first man to nab back-to-back gold medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, Usain Bolt took a new job: press photographer. In addition to striking his trademark bolt pose and taking a victory lap, Bolt also grabbed a photographer’s DSLR camera and snapped photos of fellow Jamaican and 200-meter silver medalist Yohan Blake goofing off, the exhilarated crowd, and the swarm of media members jockeying for images of the world’s best sprinter.

The camera belonged to Jimmy Wixtröm, a photographer for the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. After Bolt handed the camera back, the paper published the sprinter’s photos on its website. Considering that Bolt took the shots, did the Swedes have the right to publish them?

Under most countries’ intellectual property laws, including the United Kingdom’s, the person who actually pushed the button owns the photograph, unless the work was made for hire. That means Wixtröm technically does not own the copyright to Bolt’s photos, unless he and the sprinter negotiated a rights transfer in writing. This legal technicality also means that tourists in London who ask a passerby to take a photo of them would not own the copyright to the resulting photograph, though it is doubtful their use of the work would ever be contested. (According to Carolyn E. Wright’s Photo Attorney blog, in that case you would “likely have an implied license to use the photograph for personal uses. … But you probably wouldn’t have the right to enter the photo into a contest or license it for commercial purposes.”)

In an interview accompanying the photos, Wixtröm called Bolt’s amateur photos “pretty good” and explained that it wasn’t Bolt’s idea to take his camera—that he had actually pleaded with the world record holder to snap some photos. The Jamaican and the Swede had pulled this stunt twice before, at the 2011 track and field world championships in Daegu and during a workout in Rome. Wixtröm admitted it took some nagging to get Bolt to repeat the stunt, with Bolt even jokingly calling him a stalker. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘Usain, take a picture, Usain, take a picture.’ So I gave a promise,” Bolt told Aftonbladet.