Mardi Gras 'Indians' Want in on Profits

Tired of seeing their pictures on calendars, posters and prints, they're looking for legal protection--and to get hit off with some cash.

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Their shimmering suits and elaborate headdresses can cost upwards of $10,000 a hefty sum by most accounts. Yet every year, hundreds of working-class blacks, driven by a sense of purpose and tradition, parade around the city of New Orleans in full regalia for Mardi Gras. On hand to capture the moments are plenty of professional photographers, and therein lies the problem. The Indians claim their likenesses are being exploited for financial gain, and they're turning to the law for help.

Knowing that there are few legal protections for a person who is photographed in public — particularly one who stops and poses every few feet — some Mardi Gras Indians have begun filing for copyright protection for their suits, which account for thousands of dollars in glass beads, rhinestones, feathers and velvet, and hundreds of hours of late-night sewing.

Anyone could still take their pictures, but the Indians, many of whom live at the economic margins, would have some recourse if they saw the pictures being sold, or used in advertising. (News photographs, like the ones illustrating this article, are not at issue.)

“It’s not the old way of doing things, but the old way of doing things was conducive to exploitation,” said Ashlye M. Keaton, a lawyer who represents Indians in her private practice and also works with them through two pro bono legal programs, Sweet Home New Orleans legal services, and the Entertainment Law Legal Assistance Project.

The legal grounding of the strategy is debatable, the ability to enforce it even more so. But what may be most tricky of all is pushing the Indians themselves to start thinking about the legal and financial dimensions of something they have always done out of tradition

SOURCE: New York Times

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