Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose has an image problem, but it’s different from the kind he used to deal with as a 25-year-old rock and roll bad boy. In this case, he wants a less than flattering photo of himself scrubbed from the Internet, and the sad fact is, he’s got his work cut out for him.
Rose has had image problems before, including allegations of drug and alcohol abuse, allegedly racist and homophobic lyrics and album covers with graphic depictions of violent sexual acts. Those, however, came with the territory of being in a band whose debut, 1987’s “Appetite for Destruction,” topped the Billboard album charts, contained such classics as “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and sold 18 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Now 54 years old, Rose has succumbed to the perils of aging, just like the rest of us. A photo of him that was taken at a 2010 performance in Winnipeg, Canada and ran in the Winnipeg Free Press hit the Internet and went viral, and became the subject of cruel mockery on social media.
How bad is it?
The photo itself is unflattering. There’s no getting around that. But the real problem is that it became fodder for memes that feature parodies of Guns N’ Roses lyrics. These lyrics are superimposed over the singer, and say such hurtful things as, “Welcome to the bakery, we’ve got tons of cake.”
Rose issued a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown request with Google (GOOGL), and notices were sent to Blogspot and GoogleUserContent that read, “Copyright image of Axl Rose. Please be advised that no permission has been granted to publish the copyright image so we cannot direct you to an authorized example of it.”
Even if Rose has a legal leg to stand on in demanding the removal of the photo, getting rid of it after it’s gone viral is an impossible task. Countless Internet users the world over have saved it to their desktops and circulated it over social media, in numbers that are impossible to estimate.
“The Streisand Effect”
Bennet Kelley, founder of the Internet Law Center in Santa Monica, California, said that while Rose has options, none come with any guarantee that the photo will be removed definitively. In fact, he said that the singer exacerbated the situation by filing the takedown request in the first place.
“He’s doing it the wrong way by announcing that he’s doing it,” Kelley told Fortune. “This is something that needs to be done quietly. Letting that become public is bad news. He’s creating ‘The Streisand Effect.’”
For those not in the know, “The Streisand Effect” refers to singer Barbra Streisand, who embarked upon an effort to bury aerial photos of her Malibu home in 2003. She filed a lawsuit against the photographer, claiming that he had violated her privacy by displaying the photo on the website of the California Coastal Records Project, an environmental resource documenting development along the state’s coastline. In so doing, she simply drew more attention to the photos that she felt violated her privacy.
“When she started the lawsuit, it got a million hits,” Kelley said. “When you’re doing stuff online, if you go after it, it just makes it worse.”
The question of whether or not Rose has a legal case is not cut and dried. After all, what good is legal recourse if it’s not effective?
“The Internet is really good when it comes to copyright law,” he said. “People? Not so much. The images that are out there, most of them were taken by the paparazzi, that he can’t control. He can cajole sites, but legally they don’t have to comply.”
The technology, or lack thereof
No product can permanently scrub a particular image off of the Internet, but the more tech-savvy might try to take matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, this is time-consuming, ineffective and at times illegal.
“There’s SEO, where you would try to maximize other content,” Kelley said. “There are programs out there that can remove content by injecting SQL code into someone’s browser, but it’s not legal.”
Mitch Stoltz, Senior Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that attempts to take down photos are almost always counterproductive.
“I’m not aware of any technology that can make an embarrassing photo disappear from the Internet,” he said. “But the law aside, the harder someone tries to make a photo disappear, the more people will pass it around and share it.”
What about saying “please”?
Bennett said that Rose might have some luck if he just asks. But this, too, only has the potential to address a very small portion of the problem.
“It could be done through permissions, asking people to be reasonable and take it down,” he said. “But to argue that it’s violating his right to publicity? I just don’t know what his argument would be. He can’t change history.”
Mitch Stoltz said that Rose would have more of a case if the photo had been taken by someone in his employ. Unfortunately for Rose, that’s just not the case.
“Probably the only grounds he could have to ask for the photo to be taken down would be copyright law,” he said. “But copyright belongs to the photographer, not the person in the photo.”
“We ethically don’t approve”
What about The Winnipeg Free Press itself, the publication that got the whole ball rolling in the first place? The publication’s director of photography, Mike Aporius, told Billboard that the publication’s hands were tied.
“The Winnipeg Free Press holds editorial copyright on the image and has not approved any third-party usage,” he said. “We were only recently made aware of these memes, and while we ethically don’t approve, viral media is impossible for us to regulate. Welcome to the jungle.”
It remains to be seen whether the takedown request will have any effect, one way or the other. After all, anyone who ever spent ten minutes on Facebook knows that viral memes have a life of their own, and that the best recourse may be just be to wait it out. After all, social media users are easily distracted by new trending topics, and trying to squash one publicly may just add fuel to the fire.
“These things need to be dealt with discreetly,” Kelley said. “The fact that you’re reporting it speaks volumes.”
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.