Guns N’ Roses and its management team are facing a new lawsuit filed by photographer Katarina Benzova, filled with allegations of copyright infringement and workplace sexual harassment.
Benzova’s suit argues that GnR and its management company, Team Brazil, “falsely claim[ed] ownership” over a number of her photographs, leading to “widespread” infringement and unauthorized uses in print and digital media, ad campaigns, and other outlets.
Benzova also claims that GnR’s manager, Fernando Lebeis, made “numerous unwelcome sexual advances” toward her. The suit alleges he committed “consistent pervasive sexual harassment” in a “workplace environment that was completely devoid of any sexual harassment policy, sexual harassment handbook, sexual harassment training, and human resource department.”
The lawsuit comes several weeks after Guns N’ Roses filed its own suit against Benzova, claiming she “improperly registered” her photos of the band with the Copyright Office and has “falsely alleged copyright infringement against various persons and entities.” The band is seeking a declaration that Benzova’s registrations are “invalid” and that she has “no ownership interest in the copyright to the subject photographs and videos.”
In a statement shared with Rolling Stone, Guns N’ Roses said, “Ms. Benzova was initially contracted to provide tour photography services for Guns N’ Roses in 2010. She worked with the band for 12 years and was paid and treated extraordinarily well. It was only after her services were discontinued in 2022 that she attempted to claim ownership in photos, which her contract clearly states are owned by the band. The band takes these types of claims very seriously, however, all evidence establishes these accusations are categorically and unequivocally false. This response from her comes after the band initiated suit against Ms. Benzova for falsely asserting ownership in the photos of the band.”
According to Benzova’s suit, she regularly worked for Guns N’ Roses as a freelancer for 12 years, shooting “364 shows or 30 ‘legs’” of the band’s tours between 2010 and 2022. During that time, she largely worked without a formal contract and only had a formal contract for about 18 weeks.
Benzova claims that during the “uncontracted period,” she was the sole owner of her photographs and has secured 180 Copyright registrations for her work. She acknowledged that, during the “contract period,” she “need not authorize and approve” any commercialization of her photos because they were “a work for hire” under the terms of the contract.
But, according to Benzova, during the uncontracted period, Guns N’ Roses and Team Brazil “commercialized at least 145” of her photographs “without her authorization, permission, and against her consent and objectively manifested intent.” She said those photos were reproduced, displayed publicly, and used to create advertisements.
She also said the defendants “falsely claim[ed] ownership” over her works, leading to “widespread third-party infringement and the unauthorized use of Benzova’s photographs” in various media outlets, ad campaigns, museums, exhibits, websites, DVDs, CDs, and “even as a draw for an expensive and exclusive subscription service.”
In addition to those 145 photographs, Benzova claims there are at least 10 (and possibly more) photographs that have been infringed upon since April 2020. She’s also seeking a court order “declaring her the sole owner” of all the photographs she took since 2010 when she wasn’t working under a written contract with GnR.
Benzova’s suit goes on to claim that it was “the habit and routine practice” of GnR and Team Brazil “to infringe upon” her copyrights and those of others. She said Lebeis once “admitted to disrespecting and infringing upon” her copyrights in regards to a calendar “where she was not given credit.”
She also claims that during a Nov. 2016 dispute, Lebeis admitted to “knowingly and intentionally infringing upon” her copyrights, “stating that he knew but was too lazy to give her credit.” Furthermore, Lebeis allegedly once told Benzova, “she didn’t need credit because everyone already knew that she was the photographer of Guns N’ Roses.”
Additionally, Benzova claimed Lebeis would “lie in regards to ownership of the photographs” in an alleged effort to “confuse and belittle Benzova into believing that she did not have the right or power or control over her own photographs.” Benzova claimed that whenever she tried to confront Lebeis about this issue, he would “habitually stonewall,” “gaslight,” or “psychologically manipulate” her to “make her believe she was not the owner” of the photographs.
In contrast, GnR’s suit against Benzova alleged that in 2010, Benzova signed a “written engagement agreement” declaring that one of the band’s touring affiliates, Waterhead, would own the rights to her work. The band claimed the terms of that agreement were “extended by a fully executed oral modification” as Benzova continued to work with GnR over the years.
Furthermore, GnR claimed that Benzova signed new “Crew Member Employment Memorandums” in 2016 and 2021. Those allegedly stipulated the copyrights to her work would be owned by another GnR touring affiliate, Gundam Productions.
As for Benzova’s sexual harassment claims, she says GnR’s manager, Lebeis, “repeatedly and consistently” sexually harassed her. The first alleged instance of a “physical unwelcome sexual advance” came in 2016, with Lebeis “forcing himself onto Ms. Benzova, trying to force her to kiss him.”
After Benzova rejected Lebeis, she claims he proceeded to exhibit “hostility and aggression” towards her in alternately subtle or “overt and gross” ways. For instance, she accused Lebeis of saying “he loved her on more than 500 instances,” as well as sending her lewd or graphic text messages, including one “smutty image depicting cunnilingus” and another video “suggestive of bestiality.”
Benzova also accused Lebeis of once trying to force his way into her hotel room after she rejected his requests to drink wine with him at 6 a.m. In another alleged incident from May 2018, Benzova claimed Lebeis tried to force himself on her and “continued to pressure Benzova to succumb to his sexual demands for 10 minutes — physically touching her, coercing her, continually trying to force himself onto Benzova in a dark alley outside of her house.”
Benzova said this incident was the last time — outside a few cigarette breaks — she was alone with Lebeiz. “Benzova made a conscious effort not to be alone with Lebeis because his severe and pervasive sexual harassment made her feel unsafe,” the suit states.
As a result of Benzova’s rejections, according to the suit, Lebeis allegedly set out to “prove his dominance” over her “through other means.” He allegedly lowered Benzova’s compensation, withheld money owed to her, “demoted” her to cheaper hotels (including one time when she had Covid-19), demanded she pay for flights Team Brazil had allegedly already agreed to pay for, and intentionally withheld photo credits.