Most people probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow at celebrities who sell their photos to the press, but the practice could seem a bit out of place for the wife of the country's highest official. President Donald Trump's latest financial disclosure reveals how Melania Trump made a six-figure income from photos used by news outlets and other private organizations. But, a report by NBC News' Andrew W. Lehren, Emily R. Siegel, and Merritt Enright says the use of those photos reportedly came with a stipulation: that they only be used in positive news stories.
The financial documents showed Melania earning at least $100,000 from photo agency Getty Images through news organizations' use of any of 187 photos taken of the Trumps by Belgian photographer Regine Mahaux between 2001 and 2016. The income stems from a royalties agreement that the first lady struck with Getty.
Getty Images operates by licensing photos out for various uses. The copyright owner is then paid the licensing fees Getty collects. Generally, the copyright holder of an image is usually the photographer, or the media company that photographer is employed by.
However, that is not always the case. As Portland-based attorney and photographer Bert Krages told Bustle in May, "it is possible to assign ownership of images to other persons, and it is thus conceivable that Ms. Trump has acquired the rights to various images and has submitted them to Getty for licensing. I don't know how common this is but it would not be particularly difficult to do from a legal perspective."
Many news organizations use Getty Images to supply their stories with images, including BDG Media, which has a Getty subscription. Because of the agreement the Trumps struck with Getty, some news organizations allegedly ended up indirectly paying Melania when they used any of the 187 photos in question.
While it is unusual for Melania to hold the copyright to these images instead of the photographer, the fact that the agreement apparently mandates they be used for “positive stories only” is even more striking. Getty Images, according to NBC News, would not reveal the specifics of the arrangement nor the precise payments to the Trumps, citing confidentiality per the agreements. However, the photo agency did include the stipulation that the photos be used for positive use in its catalog.
NBC News itself was one of the organizations who used the photos. NBC Nightly News included the photos in a Melania news segment that aired during the 2016 Republican National Convention. A spokesperson for NBC News said they "did not agree or sign a statement that the image would be used for positive coverage, and was never informed that a portion of the royalties would go to the Trump family."
Melania’s relationship with the press has been a topic of conversation ever since Trump announced his presidential candidacy. She has preferred to stay out of the spotlight, even limiting her controlled media appearances, resulting in a first lady the public knows little about. On the rare occasions she has spoken out, it is generally to defend herself and her family against defamatory attacks made by celebrities, bloggers, and news outlets.
Many of the news organizations that indirectly paid the First Family for use of the 187 licensed photographs, such as Marie Claire, the Daily Mail, Houston Chronicle, House Beautiful, Elle, and Yahoo! News are organizations that have had limited access to the Trumps in the past. Many outlets took down the photos from their websites after the "positive stories only" stipulation was brought to their attention.
NBC News also reported that Fox News also used the photos in their news segments in 2016. A Fox News Channel spokesperson responded by statement, saying the photos "were provided by the Trump campaign and Melania Trump's office, who told us they had full ownership and rights to the photos."
News outlets were not the only ones to pay for those images. NBC News also found a multitude of other groups had used the images before President Trump took office, though no income from the Getty deal was itemized in any financial disclosure prior to 2017. For example, the photos were also used in a Republican National Convention guide book and a calendar for sale at the White House gift shop.