Did Someone Break the Law by Leaking the Solange-Jay Z-Beyoncé Elevator Tape?

Who holds legal responsibility for the leak, and what laws, if any, were actually broken by the public distribution of the tape. 

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A video of Solange attacking her brother-in-law, Jay Z, in an elevator at The Standard Hotel in New York surfaced this week, breaking the Internet and sending social media into a mass craze of guessing #WhatJayZSaidToSolange. The video was presumably leaked by a security guard monitoring the cameras at The Standard, or by some other hotel staff member with access to the area in which the monitors were kept. Who holds legal responsibility for the leak, and what laws, if any, were actually broken by the public distribution of the tape?

In the leaked video, you can clearly see that the elevator camera is one of at least four security feeds being monitored. This means that rather than actually stealing the tape itself, or downloading just the stream from the elevator camera onto a separate device, someone filmed the monitors using their own device. Based on the grainy image and shaky recording, it was likely recorded with a phone.

Cameras in elevators are legal, but in order to avoid violating any privacy laws, they must serve a "legitimate business purpose" and cannot intrude "into a person's reasonable expectation of privacy." This is why the cameras are placed in a high corner, rather than at eye level; generally record in black and white; and do not record audio. However, elevator conversations can never be recorded — it would violate federal wiretapping laws. This means that unless Jay Z himself tells us, we will never find out exactly #WhatJayZSaidtoSolange.

There is also the question of whether or not the elevator is a public space. In New York, "the statute is designed to enforce the right to be left alone." That means citizens are protected from having their image taken in private spaces — think cameras in fitting rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms — but this protection doesn't apply in public areas. The state law in New York allows for “free dissemination of news and other matters of interest to the public”; in this case the video of Solange hitting Jay Z. The federal law also upholds this. It is Common Law that you can record anything you see in public, as long as you don't harass your subjects. This was upheld when Ron Galella, a paparazzi who built a career on photographing Jackie Onassis, was sued by her. The court found that he was allowed to photograph her in public, as long as he didn't stalk her. 

The Wire consulted several lawyers to determine whether the elevator at The Standard is truly a public space, which would make the dissemination of the tape legal. Collin Schwartz, a lawyer in New York, believes that while the elevator was a public space which can be recorded, the method by which the tape was obtained is the larger issue. Several other lawyers agreed with this notion.

In this case, the original recording was actually made by The Standard Hotel: It was on their property, using their camera system, and displayed on their monitors. The person who recorded the video onto their own device was actually stealing content that belongs to The Standard. According to Schwartz, this constitutes petty larceny in the state of New York.

In a statement issued by The Standard to The Wire via email, the hotel confirmed they plan to pursue the action against the thief:

"We are shocked and disappointed that there was a clear breach of our security system and the confidentiality that we count on providing our guests. We are investigating with the utmost urgency the circumstances surrounding the situation and, as is our customary practice, will discipline and prosecute the individuals involved to our fullest capacity."

In addition to stealing the recording from The Standard, whoever did this distributed the video to TMZ, and likely made a pretty penny ($250,000, according to the New York Post) from selling the footage. Another lawyer The Wire consulted said they could face charges similar to pirating, though that would be a stretch. "Technically, they have stolen it, then sold it for profit, so it is like pirating. You basically pirated a copy."

Finally, Solange could also have a case against TMZ, though a very weak one. She could technically argue that by publishing the tape they portrayed her in a "false light" in the article, though Schwartz believes this would be difficult to uphold in court. "It would be difficult to prove it presented her in false light that was highly offensive to the reasonable person," says Schwartz, "and that it created emotional harm and distress." While the TMZ article states "Solange goes crazy," it does not imply that she is crazy, which is what the court would need to see for a false light claim. Regardless, Schwartz says "If I were [TMZ's] legal department, I would advise them not to use the word crazy for risk of false light."

Even if there is no legal action taken, it is clear that the hotel will take action if the leaker is an employee. And unfortunately, we will never be able to hear the audio that turned into the best #hashtag ever.

Update; 5/15: The Standard announced late on Wednesday night that they identified the employee who recorded the security footage and that person has indeed been fired. The hotel told the AP that they have turned over "all available information to criminal authorities," and will be pursuing charges:

"The Standard has already terminated the individual and will now be pursuing all available civil and criminal remedies."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.