Court of Appeals of the State of New YorkMar 29, 1983
58 N.Y.2d 338 (N.Y. 1983)
58 N.Y.2d 338448 N.E.2d 108461 N.Y.S.2d 254

Argued February 16, 1983

Decided March 29, 1983

Appeal from the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the First Judicial Department, EDWARD J. GREENFIELD, J.

A. Richard Golub and Gary S. Graifman for respondent-appellant. Sandor Frankel and Peter M. Thall for respondent-appellant.

The issue on this appeal is whether an infant model may disaffirm a prior unrestricted consent executed on her behalf by her parent and maintain an action pursuant to section 51 of the Civil Rights Law against her photographer for republication of photographs of her. We hold that she may not.

Plaintiff is now a well-known actress. For many years prior to these events she had been a child model and in 1975, when she was 10 years of age, she obtained several modeling jobs with defendant through her agent, the Ford Model Agency. One of the jobs, a series of photographs to be financed by Playboy Press, required plaintiff to pose nude in a bathtub. It was intended that these photos would be used in a publication entitled "Portfolio 8" (later renamed "Sugar and Spice"). Before the photographic sessions, plaintiff's mother and legal guardian, Teri Shields, executed two consents in favor of defendant. After the pictures were taken, they were used not only in "Sugar and Spice" but also, to the knowledge of plaintiff and her mother, in other publications and in a display of larger-than-life photo enlargements in the windows of a store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Indeed, plaintiff subsequently used the photos in a book that she published about herself and to do so her mother obtained an authorization from defendant to use them. Over the years defendant has also photographed plaintiff for Penthouse Magazine, New York Magazine and for advertising by the Courtauldts and Avon companies.

The consents provided in pertinent part:
"I hereby give the photographer, his legal representatives, and assigns, those for whom the photographer is acting, and those acting with his permission, or his employees, the right and permission to copyright and/or use, reuse and/or publish, and republish photographic pictures or portraits of me, or in which I may be distorted in character, or form, in conjunction with my own or a fictitious name, on reproductions thereof in color, or black and white made through any media by the photographer at his studio or elsewhere, for any purpose whatsoever, including the use of any printed matter in conjunction therewith.
"I hereby waive any right to inspect or approve the finished photograph or advertising copy or printed matter that may be used in conjunction therewith or to the eventual use that it might be applied."

In 1980 plaintiff learned that several of the 1975 photographs had appeared in a French magazine called "Photo" and, disturbed by that publication and by information that defendant intended others, she attempted to buy the negatives. In 1981, she commenced this action in tort and contract seeking compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction permanently enjoining defendant from any further use of the photographs. Special Term granted plaintiff a preliminary injunction. Although it determined that as a general proposition consents given by a parent pursuant to section 51 barred the infant's action, it found that plaintiff's claim that the consents were invalid or restricted the use of the photographs by Playboy Press presented questions of fact. After a nonjury trial the court ruled that the consents were unrestricted as to time and use and it therefore dismissed plaintiff's complaint. In doing so, however, it granted plaintiff limited relief. On defendant's stipulation it permanently enjoined defendant from using the photographs in "pornographic magazines or publications whose appeal is of a predominantly prurient nature" and it charged him with the duty of policing their use. The Appellate Division, by a divided court, modified the judgment on the law and granted plaintiff a permanent injunction enjoining defendant from using the pictures for purposes of advertising or trade. Two Justices voted for the result believing that plaintiff possessed a common-law right to disaffirm the consent given defendant by her parent. Justice KUPFERMAN concurred, believing that in addition to the common-law right, the consents were governed by section 3-105 of the General Obligations Law and therefore could be interpreted to have expired after three years. Justice ASCH also concurred in the result but on other grounds. He construed the transaction as a sale of pictures, not services, and applying the Uniform Commercial Code, he interpreted the consents and found them void because they were "unconscionable" (see Uniform Commercial Code, §§ 2-102, 2-302). Plaintiff had not raised that issue before the trial court, however, nor did the parties present evidence on it and we have not considered it (see Uniform Commercial Code, § 2-302, subd [2]). Justice CARRO dissented and voted to affirm the judgment of Trial Term. It was his view that the consents given in conformity with the statute constituted general releases and provided a complete defense to plaintiff's subsequent action.

The parties have filed cross appeals. Defendant requests reinstatement of the trial court's judgment. Plaintiff requests, in the alternative, that the order of the Appellate Division be modified by striking the limitation enjoining use only for purposes of advertising and trade, or that the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed or, failing both of these, that a new trial be granted. Since the Appellate Division accepted the trial court's findings that the consents were valid and unrestricted as to time and use, we are presented with only a narrow issue of law concerning the legal effect to be given to the parent's consents.

Historically, New York common law did not recognize a cause of action for invasion of privacy ( Arrington v New York Times Co., 55 N.Y.2d 433; Roberson v Rochester Folding Box Co., 171 N.Y. 538). In 1909, however, responding to the Roberson decision, the Legislature enacted sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law. Section 50 is penal and makes it a misdemeanor to use a living person's name, portrait or picture for advertising purposes without prior "written consent". Section 51 is remedial and creates a related civil cause of action on behalf of the injured party permitting relief by injunction or damages (see Arrington v New York Times Co., supra, at p 439; Flores v Mosler Safe Co., 7 N.Y.2d 276, 280). Section 51 of the statute states that the prior "written consent" which will bar the civil action is to be as "above provided", referring to section 50, and section 50, in turn, provides that: "A person, firm or corporation that uses for advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade, the name, portrait or picture of any living person without having first obtained the written consent of such person, or if a minor of his or her parent or guardian, is guilty of a misdemeanor" (emphasis added).

Thus, whereas in Roberson, the infant plaintiff had no cause of action against the advertiser under the common law for using her pictures, the new statute gives a cause of action to those similarly situated unless they have executed a consent or release in writing to the advertiser before use of the photographs. The statute acts to restrict an advertiser's prior unrestrained common-law right to use another's photograph until written consent is obtained. Once written consent is obtained, however, the photograph may be published as permitted by its terms (see Welch v Mr. Christmas, 57 N.Y.2d 143).

Concededly, at common law an infant could disaffirm his written consent (see Joseph v Schatzkin, 259 N.Y. 241; Casey v Kastel, 237 N.Y. 305) or, for that matter, a consent executed by another on his or her behalf (see Lee v Silver, 262 App. Div. 149, affd 287 N.Y. 575; Goldfinger v Doherty, 153 Misc. 826, affd 244 App. Div. 779; Aborn v Janis, 62 Misc. 95, affd 122 App. Div. 893). Notwithstanding these rules, it is clear that the Legislature may abrogate an infant's common-law right to disaffirm (see, e.g., General Obligations Law, § 3-101, subd 3; § 3-102, subd 1; § 3-103; Education Law, § 281; Insurance Law, § 145) or, conversely, it may confer upon infants the right to make binding contracts (see Matter of T.W.C., 38 N.Y.2d 128, 130 [Domestic Relations Law, § 115-b]; Hamm v Prudential Ins. Co. of Amer., 137 App. Div. 504 [Insurance Law, § 145, formerly § 55]; Matter of Presler, 171 Misc. 559). Where a statute expressly permits a certain class of agreements to be made by infants, that settles the question and makes the agreement valid and enforceable. That is precisely what happened here. The Legislature, by adopting section 51, created a new cause of action and it provided in the statute itself the method for obtaining an infant's consent to avoid liability. Construing the statute strictly, as we must since it is in derogation of the common law (see McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes, § 301, subd b), the parent's consent is binding on the infant and no words prohibiting disaffirmance are necessary to effectuate the legislative intent. Inasmuch as the consents in this case complied with the statutory requirements, they were valid and may not be disaffirmed (see Matter of T.W.C., supra).

Nor do we believe that the consents may be considered void because the parties failed to comply with the provisions of section 3-105 of the General Obligations Law requiring prior court approval of infants' contracts. By its terms, section 3-105 applies only to performing artists, such as actors, musicians, dancers and professional athletes moreover, it is apparent by comparing other statutes with it that the Legislature knowingly has differentiated between child performers and child models. Thus, section 3229 (formerly § 3216-c) of the Education Law, which applies to "Child performers", is referred to in section 3-105 (subd 2, par a) of the General Obligations Law but section 3230 of the Education Law, which applies to child models, is not. Child models are also recognized as a separate work classification in section 172 (subd 2, par f) of the Labor Law. Furthermore, section 3-105 was not designed to expand the rights of infants to disaffirm their contracts, as the concurring Justice at the Appellate Division would apply it, but to provide assurance to those required to deal with infants that the infants would not later disaffirm executory contracts to the adult contracting party's disadvantage (see Matter of Prinze [ Jonas], 38 N.Y.2d 570, 575). Sections 50 and 51 as we interpret them serve the same purpose, to bring certainty to an important industry which necessarily uses minors for its work. This same need for certainty was the impetus behind not only section 3-105 but the various other sections of the General Obligations Law which prohibit disaffirmance of an infant's contract.

Realistically, the procedures of prior court approval set forth in section 3-105, while entirely appropriate and necessary for performing artists and professional athletes, are impractical for a child model who, whether employed regularly or sporadically, works from session to session, sometimes for many different photographers. Moreover, they work for fees which are relatively modest when compared to those received by actors or professional athletes who may be employed by one employer at considerably greater remuneration for a statutorily permissible three-year term. Indeed, the fee in this case was $450, hardly sufficient to warrant the elaborate court proceedings required by section 3-105 or to necessitate a court's determination of what part should be set aside and preserved for the infant's future needs. Nor do we think court approval necessary under the circumstances existing in the normal child model's career. Given the nature of the employment, it is entirely reasonable for the Legislature to substitute the parents' judgment and approval of what is best for their child for that of a court.

It should be noted that plaintiff did not contend that the photographs were obscene or pornographic. Her only complaint was that she was embarrassed because "they [the photographs] are not me now." The trial court specifically found that the photographs were not pornographic and it enjoined use of them in pornographic publications. Thus, there is no need to discuss the unenforceability of certain contracts which violate public policy (see, e.g., Penal Law, § 235.00 et seq.) or to equate an infant's common-law right to disaffirm with that principle, as the dissent apparently does.

Finally, it is claimed that the application of the statute as we interpret it may result in unanticipated and untoward consequences. If that be so, there is an obvious remedy. A parent who wishes to limit the publicity and exposure of her child need only limit the use authorized in the consent, for a defendant's immunity from a claim for invasion of privacy is no broader than the consent executed to him (see Welch v Mr. Christmas, 57 N.Y.2d 143, supra; Adrian v Unterman, 281 App. Div. 81, affd 306 N.Y. 771).

The order of the Appellate Division should be modified by striking the further injunction against use of the photographs for uses of advertising and trade, and as so modified, the order should be affirmed.


Chief Judge COOKE and Judges JONES and WACHTLER concur with Judge SIMONS; Judge JASEN dissents in part and votes to affirm in a separate opinion in which Judges FUCHSBERG and MEYER concur.

Order modified, with costs to defendant, in accordance with the opinion herein and, as so modified, affirmed.

Since I believe that the interests of society and this State in protecting its children must be placed above any concern for trade or commercialism, I am compelled to dissent. The State has the right and indeed the obligation to afford extraordinary protection to minors.

At the outset, it should be made clear that this case does not involve the undoing of a written consent given by a mother to invade her infant daughter's privacy so as to affect prior benefits derived by a person relying on the validity of the consent pursuant to sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law. Rather, what is involved is the right of an infant, now 17 years of age, to disaffirm her mother's consent with respect to future use of a nude photograph taken of her at age 10.

The majority holds, as a matter of law, not only in this case but as to all present and future consents executed by parents on behalf of children pursuant to sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law, that once a parent consents to the invasion of privacy of a child, the child is forever bound by that consent and may never disaffirm the continued invasion of his or her privacy, even where the continued invasion of the child's privacy may cause the child enormous embarrassment, distress and humiliation.

I find this difficult to accept as a rational rule of law, particularly so when one considers that it has long been the rule in this State that a minor enjoys an almost absolute right to disaffirm a contract entered into either by the minor or by the minor's parent on behalf of the minor ( Sternlieb v Normandie Nat. Securities Corp., 263 N.Y. 245; Joseph v Schatzkin, 259 N.Y. 241; International Text Book Co. v Connelly, 206 N.Y. 188; Rice v Butler, 160 N.Y. 578; Sparman v Keim, 83 N.Y. 245; Green v Green, 69 N.Y. 553) and the statute in question does not in any manner abrogate this salutary right.

This right has been upheld despite the fact that the minor held himself out to be an adult ( Sternlieb v Normandie Nat. Securities Corp., supra) or that a parent also attempted to contractually bind the minor ( Kaufman v American Youth Hostels, 13 Misc.2d 8, mod on other grounds 6 A.D.2d 223, mod and certified question answered in negative 5 N.Y.2d 1016). Significantly, whether or not the minor can restore the other contracting party to the position he was in prior to entering the contract is pertinent only to the extent that the minor, by disaffirming the contract, cannot put himself into a better position than he was in before entering the contract. ( Sternlieb v Normandie Nat. Securities Corp., supra; Rice v Butler, supra.) In the past, this court has noted that those who contract with minors do so at their own peril. ( Joseph v Schatzkin, supra, at p 243.)

Understandably, such a broad right has evolved as a result of the State's policy to provide children with as much protection as possible against being taken advantage of or exploited by adults. "The right to rescind is a legal right established for the protection of the infant" ( Green v Green, supra, at p 556). This right is founded in the legal concept that an infant is incapable of contracting because he does not understand the scope of his rights and he cannot appreciate the consequences and ramifications of his decisions. Furthermore, it is feared that as an infant he may well be under the complete influence of an adult or may be unable to act in any manner which would allow him to defend his rights and interests. (28 N.Y. Jur, Infants, § 3, pp 221-222.) Allowing a minor the right to disaffirm a contract is merely one way the common law developed to resolve those inequities and afford children the protection they require to compensate for their immaturity.

Can there be any question that the State has a compelling interest in protecting children? Indeed, the most priceless possessions we have in the Nation are our children. Recognizing this compelling interest in children, the State has assumed the role of parens patriae, undertaking with that role the responsibility of protecting children from their own inexperience. Acting in that capacity, the State has put the interests of minors above that of adults, organizations or businesses. ( Rice v Butler, supra; Kaufman v American Youth Hostels, supra; Sternlieb v Normandie Nat. Securities Corp., supra.) The broad right given a minor to disaffirm a contract is, of course, an obvious example of the State's attempt to afford an infant protection against exploitation by adults. (28 N Y Jur, Infants, op. cit.) Thus, I am persuaded that, in this case, 17-year-old Brooke Shields should be afforded the right to disaffirm her mother's consent to use a photograph of her in the nude, taken when she was 10 years old, unless it can be said, as the majority holds, that the Legislature intended to abrogate that right when it enacted sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law.

The legislative history of this statute enacted in the early 1900's is understandably scarce. The case law prior to its passage, however, indicates that a minor's right to disaffirm a contract under the common law was well established at that time. Additionally, it is well accepted that this statute was enacted in response to this court's decision in Roberson v Rochester Folding Box Co. ( 171 N.Y. 538; see, also, Arrington v New York Times Co., 55 N.Y.2d 433, 439) in which the court held that a minor had no recourse against an entrepreneur who made commercial use out of her picture without her consent. Apparently, in order to alleviate litigation over whether or not consent had been given, the Legislature required that such consent be in writing and, if the person was a minor, that the parent sign the consent form. There is no indication that by requiring consent from the minor's parents, the Legislature intended in any way to abrogate that minor's right to disaffirm a contract at some future date. Indeed, the requirement of parental consent, like the broad right to disaffirm a contract, was granted in order to afford the minor as much protection against exploitation as possible. The assumption, of course, was that a parent would protect the child's interests. But if that assumption proves invalid, as may well be the case if a minor upon reaching the age of maturity realizes that the parent, too, has been exploiting him or her or had failed to adequately guard his or her interest by giving consent for pictures which caused humiliation, embarrassment and distress, then the child should be able to cure the problem by disaffirming the parent's consent. To say, as does the majority, that the mother could have limited her consent avoids the issue. If the parent has failed to put any restrictions on the consent, as occurred in this case, and has thus failed to protect the child's future interests, I see no reason why the child must continue to bear the burden imposed by her mother's bad judgment. This means the child is forever bound by its parent's decisions, even if those decisions turn out to have been exploitative of the child and detrimental to the child's best interests.

Furthermore, nothing compels the majority's conclusion that the right to disaffirm a contract was eliminated when the Legislature created a new cause of action for invasion of privacy merely because that statute provided safeguards for the child's privacy by giving the parent the right to grant or withhold consent. When both rights are viewed, as I believe they must be, as protection for the child, logic and policy compels the conclusion that the two rights should exist coextensively. The requirement that a parent consent before the child's privacy can be invaded by commercial interests establishes the parent as the first guardian of the child's interest. But the State retains its long-standing role of parens patriae so that if the parent fails to protect the child's interests, the State will intervene and do so. One means of doing so is to allow the child to exercise its right to disaffirm if the child concludes that its parent improvidently consented to the invasion of the child's privacy interests. Given the strong policy concern of the State in the child's best interests, I can only conclude that the Legislature did not intend to abrogate the child's commonlaw right to disaffirm a contract when it required, by statute, the additional protection of written, parental consent prior to any commercial use of the child's image.

The discussion in this opinion of the policy behind affording a child the extraordinary protection of the right to disaffirm a contract should not be read, as the majority does, to equate the right to disaffirm with the principle that a court will refuse to enforce contracts which violate public policy. Indeed, had the courts below found that her mother had contracted for her daughter to pose in an obscene manner or that the photographs were obscene or pornographic, then we would not need to decide the applicability of the infant's right to disaffirm that contract as I assume the majority would find the contract and the consent incorporated in it to violate public policy. (Penal Law, § 235.00 et seq.; People v Ferber, 52 N.Y.2d 674 [JASEN, J., dissenting], revd 458 US ___, 102 S Ct 3348, on remand 57 N.Y.2d 256.) A contract held to be unenforceable because it violates public policy is void ab initio and, thus, there is no need to consider whether or not it may be disaffirmed.

This conclusion is further supported by other statutes in which the Legislature has clearly abrogated the infant's right to disaffirm a contract in those situations in which it has determined that the damage incurred by the minor will be minimal and the cost to the contracting party or society would be great. Invariably, these are contractual situations in which the minor has incurred a contractual obligation in order to receive a benefit which cannot be deemed anything other than a benefit. For example, section 281 of the Education Law negates a minor's right to disaffirm a contract when that contract afforded him a student loan to pursue an advanced education. (See, also, General Obligations Law, § 3-103.) No one can argue that the contract was anything other than beneficial to the minor. Such legislation was endorsed by the Law Revision Commission on the basis of a legislative finding "that the type of contract involved is clearly for the benefit of the infant". (1961 Report of N Y Law Rev Comm, pp 269, 275, citing Touster, Contracts Relating to the Services of Talented Minors and the Treatment of Their Earnings Therefrom.)

Two factors distinguish sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law from those statutory provisions which do, in certain contexts, abolish the minor's right to disaffirm a contract. The first is that in all cases when the Legislature has intended to do so, they have made their intention clear by specific language which directly refers to the infant's common-law right. The absence of any reference in the Civil Rights Law to the minor's right to disaffirm a contract, especially when it is clear that the right to disaffirm was well established, indicates that the Legislature did not intend to affect that right. Secondly, unlike the other kinds of contracts which the Legislature has designated as immune from the minor's right to disaffirm, it cannot be said that a contract releasing all rights to photographs or even limited rights to those pictures is necessarily beneficial to the infant. This is even more true when the pictures, as in this case, are of the variety which can be exploited in the future or used in publications of questionable taste.

I do not believe that the Legislature's intent in enacting sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law was to elevate the interests of business and commercialism above the State's interest in protecting its children. Since this statute was enacted in response to this court's decision in Roberson v Rochester Folding Box Co. ( supra), which denied an infant plaintiff any recovery for the invasion of her privacy by a commercial enterprise in using her picture without her consent, it would seem to me that the legislative intent was to expand individual protections, rather than to afford protection to commercial enterprises.

The fact that when an infant disaffirms a contract there may be harsh results to the person or commercial enterprise attempting to exploit the child has never caused the courts to alter the scope of the protection that right affords the child. The overriding interest of society in protecting its children has long been held to outweigh the interests of merchants who attempt to contract with children. ( Sternlieb v Normandie Nat. Securities Corp., supra, at p 250.)

In those situations in which the Legislature has decided that business ventures need additional protection, it has done so not merely by abolishing the infant's right to disaffirm, but, rather, by providing alternative protection. Section 3-105 of the General Obligations Law provides for judicial approval of contracts for the services of child performers or professional athletes. It is clear that the statute protects not only the business interests which are investing in and profiting from the child's talents, but also the child. For instance, paragraph d of subdivision 2 generally restricts such contracts to a three-year period and paragraph e of subdivision 2 provides that even after approving a contract of a child performer, the court may, if it finds that the child's well-being is in any way being impaired by its performance under the contract, revoke or modify the contract so as to protect the child. Similarly, it provides for supervision by the court of the child's earnings to assure that the child will benefit from his labors. The clear intent of such provisions is to protect the child against any exploitation. The failure of the Legislature to cover child models in this provision indicates to me that they intended child models to retain the protections afforded by the common-law right to disaffirm a contract. It is unfortunate that by virtue of the majority's interpretation of the Civil Rights Law those children may not in the future be afforded protection against exploitation by their own parents.

It is even more unfortunate that by its interpretation of sections 50 and 51 the majority takes away a large part of the protection those children had at common law.