At his post

Perez Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, operates a popular celebrity gossip website. He being sued for $7.6 million by the photo agency X17 Inc., which claims he has used 51 photographs without permission, payment or credit. (Myung J. Chun / LAT / November 15, 2006)

It's hard to know whom to sympathize with in this fight.

On one side: the paparazzi who stalk celebrities in their moments of greatest vulnerability — at doctors' offices, with their newborns, when they are falling-down drunk.

On the other: a blogger who helps himself to those photos, scrawls puerile comments on them, and posts them on his immensely popular and profitable website.

The owners of one L.A. photo agency are so frustrated with what they consider to be blatant theft by self-styled "gossip gangsta" Perez Hilton that they've decided to make a federal case of it.

On Nov. 30, X17 Inc., known for the aggressive pursuit of celebrity prey, filed a $7.6-million federal copyright infringement lawsuit against Hilton, alleging that he has used 51 photos without permission, payment or credit.

The list of allegedly infringed photos is an almost poetic inventory of the state of pop culture and people's obsession with it: "Pregnant Katie Holmes," "Kevin Federline Pumping Gas," "The New Slim Britney Spears," "Britney Spears Exposes Her Derriere," "Britney Spears Exposes Herself (Again)."

Brandy Navarre, who co-owns X17 with her husband, Francois Navarre, said the agency is suing the owner of http://www.perezhilton.com not just because he doesn't pay or credit them, but also because they don't like his attitude.

While X17 has agreements with many gossip blogs — Pink IsTheNewBlog, PopSugar and SocialiteLife, among others — allowing them to post photos with proper credit and a link back to the X17 website (http://www.X17online.com), Navarre said she was tired of constantly reminding Hilton to credit X17 and had finally given up.

"We've had trouble with a lot of bloggers," she said. "But he's the biggest, and the most arrogant and pigheaded about it, frankly."

Reached by phone at his "office," a corner table in a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard, Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, sounded miffed. "She is suing me because I'm arrogant? That's not what her press release said. My position is that I don't think what I am doing is illegal, and I am going to vigorously defend myself. I am willing to step up to the plate and fight for my rights and fight for the rights of all bloggers."

While it's easy to be flippant about a battle between paparazzi and a sometimes juvenile blogger (who might draw cocaine or mucus trails from noses, mouth drool or other snarky/silly things on the photos he posts), there is a serious legal question at issue.

If it turns out that what he does is copyright infringement — rather than a fair use of newsworthy images, as Hilton's attorney claims — it would not only put a serious crimp in the photo-driven field of gossip blogs, but possibly create new case law.

"The effect would be to eliminate the ability to comment on and transform photographs under the fair-use exception to the Copyright Act," said Hilton's attorney, Bryan Freedman of Century City.

It's one thing to take somebody's copyrighted work and turn around and sell it, he added, but to alter the work to achieve a satiric or humorous end is entirely different and is allowed under the law.

'Basically free-riding'

But X17's attorney, John Tehranian of Costa Mesa, doesn't see it as fair use at all. Hilton, he said, "is basically free-riding on the labor and efforts of X17 and its photographers who stay up all night and roam the city, and he simply right-clicks and posts their photos." (Actually, Navarre said, she has altered her site so that Hilton can no longer right-click to get photos, but he manages to get them anyway.)

This conflict is more than a juicy legal fight between two controversial enterprises. It's also the manifestation of a cultural shift in how those obsessed with pop culture get their fixes. These days, no one has to wait for People's weekly appearance on the newsstand or even "Access Hollywood's" nightly roundups to find out about Nicole Richie's latest arrest or shockingly low weight.

Hilton, who said he earned less than $50,000 last year and expected to make in the six figures this year, is known for the dizzying pace at which he updates his site, sometimes posting two dozen or more times a day.

"Perez is not being targeted because he's an affront to paparazzi everywhere," said technology expert Matt Lum, whose company, Hoodlum Productions, provides technology expertise to both Hilton and X17. "He is being targeted because the entire industry is undergoing a shift that was arguably brought on by blogs like perezhilton.com, which took stargazers from a weekly or nightly television fix to an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, entertain-yourself-at-the-workplace enterprise.