When Illinois passed a first-of-its-kind legislation earlier this month, to ensure that children featuring in any online content will be guaranteed a chunk of the profits, they were harking back to a law passed nearly a century ago.
The Illinois law, an amendment to the state’s existing child labor laws, entitles “influencers” under the age of 16, who feature in videos on online platforms, to a percentage of the earnings. Starting July 1, 2024, parents in Illinois will be obligated to allocate 50% of the earnings from any such video’s content into a blocked trust fund for the child. Pennsylvania is eyeing a similar amendment to its own child labor law.
These new laws recall “Jackie Coogan’s Law,” enacted in 1939, and designed to prevent parents from exploiting their child actors’ earnings—after one child actor sued his parents for just that.
Jackie Coogan, often touted as the first child actor in Hollywood history, shot to fame as the titular character in Charlie Chaplin’s silent-era film The Kid (1921). He went on to star in several other films, and his parents set up a production house in his name.
Coogan, who lived on a $6 daily allowance before becoming an adult, lost interest in his movie career after a while, and just waited to get his hands on his money as an adult to start afresh. But there was little left. In 1938, Coogan took his mother and stepfather to court for spending almost everything he had earned.
At the time, there was no specific law in his favor, and Coogan never recovered the entirety of his earnings. The $4 million he was fighting for dropped to $250,000 by the time the case ended, and he only received half of that. But his lawsuit had a lasting impact, sparking the law that prevented guardians and parents from having full access to a child performer’s earnings.
Even the Coogan Law had loopholes, many of which were filled over subsequent decades. The mothers of Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor, for instance, were able to pay themselves handsomely for chaperoning or managing their child stars. In its current iteration, the Coogan Law states that 15% of everything a young actor, model, or voice actor makes must be set aside for them. And that percentage must come from the performer’s gross income, not their net income, which protects it from being used to pay “chaperones” and “managers.”
“The onus here is really on the parents. And what this law does is it gives children legislative ability to sue their parents if the money is not saved for them.”
—Fortesa Latifi, a writer for Teen Vogue who’s covered child influencers, in an Aug. 21 interview with NPR
The new Illinois legislation has roots in a school project. Shreya Nallamothu, aged 16, started looking into child influencer protections last year and found that there were none. After her teacher encouraged Nallamothu to share her findings with her state senator, the research fueled the legislation. Senator David Koehler, of Peoria, sponsored the bill.
30%: The minimum percentage of any content that children have to feature in, over a 30-day period, to stake their claim to earnings, as per the new Illinois law
10 cents per view: The minimum threshold for how much online content generates, for any children appearing in them to be eligible for payouts
86%: The proportion of young Americans surveyed who said they’re willing to try being influencers on their social media platforms, according to a report from Morning Consult.
12%: The proportion of young people in the US who said they already consider themselves influencers, as per the Morning Consult report
$20,000+: How much child influencers can earn per sponsored post
1,600: The number of licensed products across 30 countries that YouTube’s most famous kid influencer, Ryan Kaji, has lent his name to, including Skechers, pajamas, Roblox, bedding, watches, sporting goods, water bottles, furniture, toothpaste, and toys
France enforced a law in 2021 to protect “influencer” children on Youtube, TikTok, Instagram, and other online platforms, just as it protects child models or actors under the French Labor Code. Under the law, only part of the child’s income will be paid to the parents, while the balance will have to be placed in a special savings account that the child will be able to access when they reach adulthood or legal emancipation.
The French law also explicitly allows minors to assert their right to be forgotten. Video platforms must delete a child’s videos upon his or her direct request, even without the parents’ consent.