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For Tiger Photos, NBC Caves in to Annie Leibovitz

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If you felt rushed while trying to gape at a half-naked Tiger Woods on TV this week, blame photographer-to-the-stars Annie Leibovitz. It was Leibovitz who required that broadcast and cable networks adhere to an unusually specific and rigid set of restrictions on the use of the eight photographs that appear in this month's Vanity Fair. At the top of the list was the requirement that no picture could be on screen longer than two seconds. Interestingly enough, the television people capitulated without a whimper or an explanation.

I don't like news organizations making deals that restrict the flow of news -- and these photos are definitely newsworthy -- so I was mildly alarmed to see news organizations substituting Leibovitz's rules for their own judgment about how long viewers need to actually see a photograph. I was especially alarmed that no one, as far as I can tell, revealed the terms they'd agreed to. (Look quick, folks! You've got two seconds. Annie Leibovitz is directing this segment.)

Here's are Annie's Rules, as provided by Vanity Fair in an email:

TIGER WOODS PHOTO RESTRICTIONS

-Each image (other than the cover with coverlines) can be shown for no more than 2 seconds each, one time only, on each shot.

-Each image (other than the cover with coverlines) can be shown only ONCE on your show.

-If you show any inside images, you MUST also show the Vanity Fair Tiger Woods cover with cover lines.

-This photo credit must accompany all Tiger Woods images onscreen:
Copyright 2010, all photographs by Annie Leibovitz, all rights reserved, N.Y.C.

Jeffrey Smith, Leibovitz's agent, acknowledges there is nothing in copyright law that makes the restrictions legally enforceable. He argues that the TV folks formed a legally binding contract with Leibovitz when they accepted the pictures along with the restrictions. Lawyers point out that the restrictions forwarded by Vanity Fair lack most necessary elements of a contract, including start and end dates, signature lines and, most importantly, penalties for violation.

So in the end, it boils down to nothing more than celebrity politics. As Smith said, "If you ever want to get another photo from Annie, you play along." Well, maybe. But that's a hell of a way to run the news.

As people from Mars are unaware, the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine contains eight somewhat strained (literally) photographs of the stripped, ripped golfer. The photos were taken by Leibovitz three years ago. The old photos were used to illustrate a new story by celebrity author Buzz Bissinger.

You have to be from someplace further away from the Sun than Mars to be unaware of the fact that Leibovitz kept the photos out of sight until her own personal financial crisis (she is deeply in debt) coincided with Woods' outing as a serial adulterer. Given the completely controlled, straitlaced image that Woods maintained until the present scandal, the photos of Woods showing off his body seem to have been produced with Nostradamus-like foresight for this moment in the champion's self-destruction.

Leibovitz's agent Smith argues mildly--he is a very mild guy--that he and his client are just trying to protect their "intellectual property value." He won't hazard a guess about how much that value might be and would not disclose what Vanity Fair paid for one-time use of the photos. He did project their possible use on a future TV special that might bring in more money. But he had no specific project in mind.

The intensely moody pictures of Woods were released to TV Tuesday as part of the usual publicity push for the monthly magazine. But Beth Kseniak, executive director of PR for Vanity Fair, acknowledges the restrictions on the Leibovitz photos were not at all usual. Whose idea was it? "It was per Annie Leibovitz," Kseniak said.

I got my first inkling of the existence of these rules on Tuesday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Just before the images were unveiled on national TV, co-host Mika Brzezinski briefly paused to express surprise at the unusual list of "restrictions" that had accompanied the photography. But neither she nor anyone else offered any explanation of what she was talking about.

Asking around the next day, I was rewarded with the list, which Kseniak emailed. Kseniak said that every major TV outlet in the country was abiding by the rules.

Lauren Skowronski, an NBC News employee who is press spokesperson for MSNBC and Morning Joe, responded to my questions in an email, "We had an interview with their writer Buzz Bissinger and we [were] following guidelines set by the magazine." She referred other questions to Vanity Fair.

It would seem that Vanity Fair is the only winner in this story. If you want to gape at Tiger for longer than two seconds, go buy the magazine. But Vanity Fair, of course, didn't cook this stuff up.

This may be a sign of things to come as artists struggle to protect the value of their works in an age when infinite copies of everything can exist on the web in fractions of a moment. It also may be a sign of things to come when news organizations are so frightened of the competition that they'll agree to any set of crazy rules -- and say farewell to independent editorial judgment -- just to make sure no one beats them to a story. Or it may just be a sign of Leibovitz's serious concerns about money. I'd love it if anyone with any thoughts on any of these topics would post their comments and their links and we can continue the debate below.