WYWH: Introduction to Estate Planning for Artists in “Your Art Will Outlive You”

 

By Heather DeSerio

The subject of what life keeps in store for artists’ legacy when they are no longer around to protect their works is of increasing interest to auction houses, galleries, heirs and artists themselves. On January 11, 2017, the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) in conjunction with the New York State Bar Association’s (NYSBA) Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Law Section (EASL) Committee on Fine Art and NYSBA’s Pro Bono Committees hosted an event, entitled “Your Art will Outlive You- How to Protect It Now,” which took place in Dumbo Brooklyn, New York. The panel of lawyers and art professionals presented a two-hour overview to artists and art professionals about what an artist can do to protect their work now, rather than wait until after they pass away.

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Source: Heather DeSerio

 

There were six key speakers: Judith B. Prowda of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Carol J. Steinberg of Law offices of Carol J. Steinberg, Elisabeth Conroy of Edward W. Hayes, P.C., Declan Redfern who is a Partner at Kayser & Redfern, LLP, Peter Arcese, practicing T&E attorney and an Adjunct Professor at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and Alicia Ehni, an artist and Program Associate at NYFA Learning. The majority of those in attendance were artists, with at least one conservator and a recorder for estate processing. NYFA, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “empower emerging artists and arts organizations across all disciplines at critical stages in their creative lives and professional/organizational development” created its own “Take Aways” for the event that can be found here.

While artists tend to shy away from legal topics, this sold-out event was clearly of interest and tackled such fascinating and complex topics as will drafting, estate planning for artists, establishing artist foundations, gifting artwork while living, copyrights, and forming artist cooperatives. The following is a summary of the discussion that took place.

  1. Wills

Elisabeth Conroy, an Associate at Edward W. Hayes, P.C., started the stimulating presentation on estate planning for artists by giving an introduction to what a will is and followed up by providing the requirements for a valid and enforceable will. The five requirements are that (1) the will must be in writing; (2) must be signed by the person whose will it is, which is called a testator and they must be 18 years old; (3) signed at the end of the will; (4) published, meaning that there is an acknowledgement that this is your last will and testament; and (5) at least two witnesses must sign in the presence of the testator within 30 days of one another. Additionally, she spoke about choosing an executor of the will, types of bequests, joint wills, how to store and update a will when major life changes occur such as marriage, divorce, and children. Conroy mentioned that while an attorney is not required to create a will, it may be a good idea because using an attorney to draft and execute a will creates a presumption of the will’s validity. She also highlighted the commonly overlooked importance of having a living will and a health proxy, because designating someone to make health decisions if a person becomes incapacitated is a good idea. She ended her remarks by recommending that people should execute a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) authorization so the person that serves as the health proxy will also have access to a person’s medical records to make important life decisions.

  1. Estate Planning for Artist- Trusts, Foundations, Fiduciaries, and Valuing Art

Peter Arcese is a trusts and estates practitioner who also serves as an Adjunct Professor at NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies. He delivered quite an impassioned and intriguing presentation about estate planning for artists and why it is unique for artists. He highlighted various types of trusts that exist. Arcese repeatedly stressed the importance of appointing a qualified fiduciary. A qualified fiduciary means the fiduciary should understand what the artist’s intentions are and be competent enough to deal with auction houses, the artist’s family, lawyers, and accountants. Arcese also noted that a fiduciary should be savvy and knowledgeable enough to make decisions that are in the best interest of the artist and can deal with complex issues that may arise pertaining to funding the foundation and overseeing the administration of the estate. In addition, it is important that the fiduciary does not engage in self-dealing. This is so that the artist would avoid many problems that other artist foundations have faced such as was illustrated by the infamous Rothko case.

Art valuation is a complex topic that was briefly discussed on several occasions. Arcese told the audience about the important benefits of achieving discounts for the benefit of taxation of the estate when an artwork is sold. He pointed to the David Smith case and the DeKooning case.

One of the questions asked during the event was about the availability and reliability of art appraisals for lesser known artists. He responded that a person should try to find a highly qualified individual with a good reputation to appraise the artworks and give an estimate. This can usually be done by an auction house or qualified appraiser. There was no definitive clear answer to a follow-up question about whether the appraisals are correct, but, Arsece told the audience, “It should be based on the fair market value or what one would get at auction.”

Funding the Foundation:

Artist foundations have got their initial funding in ways such as:

  1. Borrowing money: The Adolph and Ester Gottlieb Foundation borrowed the first $10,000 to make grants and started with nothing else.

(*The Adolph and Ester Gottlieb Foundation was the first foundation to give money to artists.)

  1. Funded by select gifts of art to the estate to sell off, and the proceeds are used to help get the initial funding started.
  2. Facilitate exhibits of works in estate’s collection.
  3. Publish a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works.
  4. Licensing of the copyrights in accordance with the artist’s wishes.
  5. Life Insurance Policy: The funds received can be directed to help fund the establishment of the foundation to help pay for the initial cost of the foundation.

During Arsece’s abridged discussion about artist foundations, he emphasized key points. First, how important it is for all artist to leave clear directions about what to do and directions that layout the vision for the foundation. Next, he pointed out that foundations can be created during the artist’s lifetime or created upon death. In conclusion, Arsece reviewed the types of foundations: there are public foundations, which are based on the corporation structure, and there are also private foundations that are run by family members or named individuals by the artist.

Many questions from the audience concerned matters of funding the artist foundation and tax issues. One question specifically asked if it is a good idea to create a trust to minimize taxation in comparison to having a will. The answer was a resounding yes from several the panelist that confirmed that a trust can save on taxes. There is a one-time credit that the IRS Code allows of up to $5,500,00.00 of the value of artwork that is not subject to taxation. This exempt amount of artwork can be set aside in a trust and will not be taxed again. The monetary value of artwork is determined from the date when the artist passes and the appreciation in value of the work is free of taxation. It is advised to consult an attorney that is experienced in setting up trusts so that they tailor the plan to accomplish whatever tax savings are best depending on the individual’s goals.

  1. Artist that Gift Artwork During Artist’s Lifetime

Declan Redfern, a partner with Kayser & Redfern, LLP, with more than three decades of Trust & Estates experience including litigation both in the U.K. and the U.S. Redfern drew upon his experience to illuminate another important aspect of artist devising their property during their lifetime by elaborating on the differences between gifting an artwork during the artist’s lifetime (inter vivos gift) and how the copyright exists separately from giving of the physical work itself. An artwork’s copyright does not automatically transfer just because the physical object is gifted to someone.

When a living artist gifts artwork to someone, there are three general requirements that must be established to prove that it was an inter vivos gift: First, there has to be an intent to divest the title by the donor, second the acceptance of artwork by the donee, and third, delivery of work from the donee to the donor. Once all three requirements have been established, then an inter vivos gift has been perfected and it is no longer part of the artist’s collection.

Redfern highlighted several issues with gifting. Each example indicated problems with trying to figure out what happened with the gift during the deceased artist’s lifetime when there was conflicting circumstances, conflicting documents, or the artist’s intent was not clear. These examples illustrate that it is imperative for artists to make their intentions clear in written document that clearly describes their intentions at the time when they gift is given and indicates what rights are intended to be gifted.

He concluded his presentation by talking about the Deadman Statute. It is an evidentiary rule that applies in court when trying to establishing if a gift was actually gifted because one cannot rely upon what a Deadman told a person. There must be documentation that is notarized by a disinterested party to defeat a Deadman Statute. This also helped reinforce the idea about getting things in writing and even notarized by disinterested parties so that a person can establish that an inter vivos gift was intended to be given by the artists and if any copyrights were granted with the inter vivos gift besides possession of the artwork.

  1. Copyright Law

Carol J. Steinberg, one of the organizers of the program as well as a speaker, discussed copyright law because these rights are important for artists to consider when a person is creating an estate plan for the artist’s artwork. She stressed the importance of understanding that the law grants artists six set of copyrights, which exists separately from the physical artwork itself. Under the Copyright Act of 1976 Section 106 the six different rights are:

  1. the reproduction right;
  2. the right to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  3. the distribution right of copies or phonorecords;
  4. the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  5. the right to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  6. for sound recordings, the right to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Steinberg also informed the audience that artists can choose to retain or assign the six different copyrights independently from one another. The assignment can be done while the artist is still living or upon the artist’s death in a testamentary document that indicates the artist’s intentions for the artwork’s copyrights.

She tied it all together by mentioning that the copyrights are commonly administered after the artist death by the artist’s foundation or estate in accordance with the artist’s wishes as indicated in the artist’s testamentary documents. This is an important remark because with the rise of the internet there has been an increase in litigation involving issues such as the unlicensed reproduction, distribution, and creation of derivative works involving items such as a catalogue where the artwork is reproduced in a picture or a reproduction of the artwork is displayed on a picture on a website that features the artwork. Sometimes this occurs when owners of the physical artwork fail to realize that they need a license from the artist’s foundation or artist’s estate which are in charge of administering the artist’s copyright in a work of art after the artist is deceased. This licensing of an artwork’s copyright is necessary to ensure that another is not infringing on the artist copyrights that are still retained by the artist’s foundation or estate.  

  1. Artist Cooperatives

Alicia Ehni, the Program Associate at New York Foundation for the Arts, suggested to the audience of the program that artists should form cooperatives consisting of artists, curators, collectors, and other key players in the art world. This would benefit artists because it would  get their work seen by other professionals in the art world, which in turn gives them the exposure they need to potentially get placed in shows and museums. An increase in an artist’s visibility and prominence in the art world helps artists to increase their collectability and raises their value in the art market. A trickle effect results in more work being produced by an artist as they sell more work. Once an artist increases their work output, then there is a greater need for the artist to keep proper documentation about the work they produce and track the work’s provenance. This is because documentation is helpful in the art resale market and for authenticity. Unfortunately, artists and their foundations or estates are plagued with problems such as authentication of artwork, lack of documentation by the artist while they are living, and the need to generate income from the artist artwork to fund the artist’s foundation.

Authentication of artwork is a problem when there is a lack of record keeping performed by the artist during their lifetime. This is a highly controversial topic because artist estates and authenticators have faced several lawsuits about artworks that were improperly attributed to an artist that turned out to be forgeries. Thus, authenticators and artist’s estates tend to shy away from authenticating artworks since they do not want to be held liable for wrongly authenticating an artwork. One thing that could help with this authentication problem is for living artists to be proactive in creating a method of systematically documenting their artwork. This protective step is commonly overlooked by artists, which could create problems down the line because no one else is better qualified to determine which works should be attributed to the artist then the artist themselves.

An artist should regularly document their work by taking photos, creating a numbering system, record when an artwork is sold and to whom it was sold. Also, an artist may want to keep a list of where the artwork is stored or consigned, and provide information about the artworks materials and dimensions. Thorough records created during the artist’s lifetime would facilitate the artist’s estate management of the collection and distribution of the inventory if and when the foundation in charge of the works needs to sell authenticated works. Therefore, artists should be prudent and begin this practice at the beginning of their career to ensure their legacy is protected.

Conclusion:

“Establishing the Artist Foundation” is a vital topic in the art industry as demonstrated by the challenges encountered by high-profile foundations such as the Rothko and Warhol Foundations. Many artists, galleries, and auction houses are transforming their business strategies by incorporating artist management to help meet the needs of aging artists. Crassly put, dead artists are big business for sales, exhibits, and catalogue raisonnés. As mentioned by Robin Pogrebin in her New York Times article, “Decision Time For Aging Artist,” aging artists such as Chuck Close are beginning to think about planning for their families now rather than simply leave it to a gallery to manage their estate as artists commonly have done in the past. Artists are taking an active role in establishing a plan for their work to curtail many of the problems other artist’s estates and foundations have faced. In deciding how to develop a plan for the artist’s artworks the legacy, preservation, copyright, licensing, establishing an artist foundation, establishing a trust, and the selection of a qualified fiduciary are all important elements that merit additional education and planning to ensure the will of the artist is honored posthumously. The artist should consult a qualified and experienced attorney to establish a plan and guide them through the process of estate planning for artists.  

Select Sources:

  1. In re Rothko, 84 Misc. 2d 830, 379 N.Y.S.2d 923 (Sur. Ct. 1975), modified, 56 A.D.2d 499, 392 N.Y.S.2d 870 (1st Dep’t), aff’d, 43 N.Y.2d 305,372 N.E.2d 291, 401 N.Y.S.2d 449 (1977); on remand, 95 Misc. 2d 492, 407 N.Y.S. 2d 955 (NY Sur. Ct. 1978).
  2. Simon-Whelan v. Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc., No. 07 CIV. 6423 (LTS), 2009 WL 1457177 (S.D.N.Y. May 26, 2009).
  3. Jennifer Maloney, The Deep Freeze in Art Authentication, April 24, 2014 available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304279904579518093886991908

About the Author: Heather DeSerio (NYLS, JD candidate, Class 2017) is a Spring 2017 Legal Intern with the Center for Art Law. In her studies, she is concentrating in Intellectual Property Law. Prior to law school, she worked as a fine artist and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from Ringling College of Art and Design. She can be reached at heather.deserio@law.nyls.edu.

Building an Anthology from Ephemera: The Legal Issues of Constructing a Political Art Archive

By Scotti Hill*

INTRODUCTION

Predating the advent of words, images have long served as an elemental tool of communication, working to describe and persuade. As the modern era’s complex political systems galvanized and alienated large masses of the globe’s population, the combination of image and text has forged a new path for the rapid dissemination of ideas. In response, political protest manifested into artistic expression, a form preferable to violence.

Attempts to preserve artifacts from political protests have been undertaken with renewed urgency. From the fight for democracy in East Asia to socio-economic and racial activism in the United States, urban areas are drowning in visual and textual evidence of dissatisfaction, reminders of the angst of political alienation. Over the past several years, political events and tragedies have also mobilized archivists hoping to preserve the emotional and historical potency of movements’ artistic output.

Spontaneous graffiti, posters and artifacts have accompanied large systematic protests, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, raising concerns about the effectiveness of unauthorized artmaking. In Paris and New York, items gathered in the aftermath of terrorist attacks were collected with a sense of emotive resolution. The ephemera of political activism for these protests-posters, makeshift sculptures, graffiti, installations-have been cautiously assembled in archives. Building upon a recent New York Times commentary that investigates the increasing frequency of artifacts archives across the globe, this article explores the legal issues accompanying the preservation of political art, including how copyright, trademark, nuisance, First Amendment and vandalism claims can complicate the already murky notions of artistic authorship in political protest art.

Copyright: Is Political Protest Art Protected?

Copyright defines the possession of an exclusive legal right to literary, artistic or musical material. Normally, the creator retains copyright despite a change in ownership of the physical object. The government retains the copyright to public artworks it commissions, although under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), artists can still enjoy certain protections for state owned works, including preventing the work’s destruction or removal from the site in which it is placed. As the first federal legislation of its kind, VARA effectively grants artists a moral right to protect their creations. VARA does, however establish criteria for what creations are protected, including original and exclusive works crafted from media such as paintings, photographs, sculptures and drawings.

The U.S copyright law is designed to protect intellectual property from being improperly appropriated, exploited and disseminated by third parties. U.S. copyright law’s fair use exception allows for reproduction in cases of educational commentary, criticism, reporting or teaching. In determining fair use, the individual or organization seeking to reproduce the image must articulate the underlying philosophical purpose accompanying the image and take care to not impede the original work’s potential marketability.

Generally, copyright protection for an artistic creation is broad, covering any work of original authorship crafted in a tangible medium that “possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.” Do temporary or impermanent creations, like those used in political protests, retain the same protection?

Creators of political protest art frequently operate under the guise of anonymity, working to shape or build upon a dialogue. Such items are rarely crafted as art items, let alone designed to be exhibited after the event they are intended to address, shore up or put down. Instead of being cherished in a pristine exhibition space, works are created to be portable and destructible so that they may serve as instruments of a movement, rather than merely symbols of it. Such items include posters that loudly parade the epitaphs of the movement, sculptures symbolizing political ideals, and flyers and pamphlets that participants hand out to eager members of the public.  Most importantly, these items are intended to be shared, to elicit a desired reaction in furtherance of the larger philosophy for which they serve. The disposability of such items negates the care and attention paid to traditional artworks, decreasing the incentive to protect item through legal means. With the foregoing logic in mind, it’s seemingly unlikely that creators of political protest art can assert robust copyright protection for works not intended to survive beyond a certain event. As it stands, the record is silent on the issue of artists seeking copyright protection for works used in political protests, yet the advent of protest artifact archives may bring this once ancillary issue front and center.

Ferguson, Street Art and the Politics of Anti-Institutional Artmaking

The 2014 death of Michael Brown rendered Ferguson, Missouri a hotbed of political and social unrest. In turn, artists and intellectuals resisted a media firestorm that presented the city’s extreme political unrest in a monolithic fashion. In his communal art project, Push Forward, artist Damon Davis pasted images of raised hands in various locations throughout Ferguson. With the permission of local business owners, whose establishments had been boarded up and closed to the community, these stirring images served as visual symbols of collective solidarity. Davis’ works, and many others like it, signal an increasing acceptance of graffiti as art, with more business owners allowing their structures to serve as mediums or ‘canvases’ of expression.

In the 21st century, street artists have seized a growing spirit of dissatisfaction with cultural institutions-namely museums and galleries for which pioneering Land Artist Robert Smithson deemed “mausoleums of culture.” Now, art forms such as graffiti bring art directly to the people, and while the last decade has ushered in an unprecedented degree of cultural acceptance to the medium that was once dismissed as vandalism, this arena is still abound with legal issues such as nuisance. 

As a common law tort, nuisance claims can be either public or private, and, arise from unauthorized and inappropriate uses of one’s property. Often, nuisance claims aim to reverse the tortfeasor’s action, which has affected the property’s value or the owner’s reasonable use of land. The illegal placement of graffiti has served as a logical iteration of nuisance, with the art form existing as a literal defacement of property-regardless of aesthetic value or societal appreciation.

Still other forms of political artmaking evoke public nuisance claims, raising concerns about the viability of art rooted in illegality. VARA’s protection of public artworks is contingent on whether or not the work is of “recognized stature.”  In affirming a legal standard for unsolicited street artworks, English v. BFC&R E. 11th St LLC held that VARA fails to protect illegally placed graffiti. While not all graffiti is protest art, its ongoing popularity attests to the viability of public avenues of expression. Like many of history’s most daring and thought-provoking artworks, graffiti often dares to confront directly that which would have otherwise remained hidden.

Cataloguing Chaos: Preserving the Evidence of Terrorist Attacks in Paris, New York, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

In the wake of major terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001 and Paris on November 13, 2015, archivists began the arduous process of cataloguing thousands of items compiled in makeshift memorials throughout the cities. In such events, archivists often struggle with determining the best procedure for both collecting the items and curating overwhelming collection.

In Paris, archivists prioritize letters and drawings above other artifacts, as these items seem to harness most eloquently the human dimension of tragedy. Archivists aim to preserve these artifacts’ emotional potency, what sociologists and intellectuals consider the most telling of the collective experience spurned by the event. The donative nature of these items negates legal concerns regarding ownership, however, preservation-determining the appropriate size of a state archive or who makes these determinations remains.

In contrast to the portable ephemera in Paris, New York’s post-9/11 archivist practices were decidedly more ambitious, relying on both small tokens of grief and large sections of destroyed structures. After the city’s terrorist attack, distorted masses of the World Trade Center were quickly isolated and stored with the intent to preserve. Their sublime presence in the 9/11 museum is emblematic of a cultural reluctance to let go, as if the fragments themselves carry with them a magnetic power to retell the trauma of that day’s human loss.

In addition to terrorist attacks, socio-political insurgencies in the West have catalyzed ambitious archives and databases. From the outset, attempts to document and preserve the Occupy Wall Street Movement were undertaken by sociologists, students and organizers. Archivists have to date thousands of items-posters, signs, photographs and messages-stored in physical and digital venues. The process has engendered a fascinating degree of debate from academics and movement insiders, many of whom question the legitimacy of archives’ underlying narratives.

Starting in 2011, students at New York University’s Moving Image Archive and Preservation Program (MIAP) began collecting items presenting the media coverage of the movement. With the help of MIAP director Howard Besser, the students dubbed themselves “Activist Archivists,” uniting under the principal goal of preserving “the spirit, decentralization, self-organization, playfulness, and whimsy of this protest movement [which would otherwise] be lost to history if the media that documented this did not survive.” The archive’s role as counter of ‘real’ history presents an empowering incentive for the process of collecting, and may well persuade other movements to make similar strides in the future.

Je Suis Charlie

According to the U.S. patent and trademark office, two applications were filed for “Je Suis Charlie,” Paris’ iconic rallying cry following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. Recently, the Washington Post proffered a commentary on the increasing frequency by which private individuals and businesses have applied for Trademarks in the wake of public tragedies.

As discussed in Dennis C. Abram’s article “Je Suis Public Domain,” opportunists see great economic potential in creative output, such as slogans that encapsulate the essence of collective spirit following great tragedy. Such attempts are rarely, if ever, legally recognized. U.S. law dictates that a trademark must have some connection to a good or service that is being promoted and visually identified so as to distinguish it from other similar products. 

First Amendment and Vandalism: The Case of the Illuminator Art Collective

While material items such as posters, sculptures and pamphlets evoke the classic definition of a political artifact, performance remains an apt medium for the dissemination of socio-political critiques. Inherently uncommodifiable, performance art often prioritizes the immediate interaction of participants involved in political protests over secondary documentation in the form of photographs or videos. Groups like the Guerilla Girls, the famed feminists whose performances spurned valuable dialogue regarding institutional racism and sexism within the art world, have put art activism on the map in recent decades.

Similarly, the New York City-based Illuminator Art Collective (IAC) stages political protests at famous sites such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the United Nations Building, where these iconic structures become the conceptual canvas upon which political critiques are projected. Using a specially designed van that holds a projector on its roof, the group projects messages and symbols meant to provoke dialogue and reveal the secrets these institutions are inclined to keep hidden. The group’s tactics reveal a curious relationship between art activism and the First Amendment, as well as how the seemingly universal definition of vandalism must be altered to adapt to new technologies and artistic visions.

The group’s work highlights this fascinating intersection between art activism and law. On September 9, 2014, three members of the group, Kyle Depew, Grayson Earle and Yates McKee, were arrested for unlawful posting of advertisements, when they projected images on the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The images were critical of billionaire businessman David Koch, who had recently donated $65 million dollars to the museum in exchange for the museum’s public plaza being renamed after him. IAC’s projections were critical of Koch’s environmental stances, namely his denial of climate change. While parked on a public street, the van was approached by a NYPD deputy, who later seized the group’s projector equipment and arrested the three on the charge of unlawful posting of advertisements. Before these charges were formally dropped by a criminal court, the city of New York issued criminal summonses for three members. NYPL §145.30 “forbids unauthorized individuals from posting, painting or otherwise affixing to the property of another person any advertisement, poster, notice or other matter designed to benefit a person other than the owner of the property.” The law appears to be an adequate measure in protecting businesses from becoming hosts to unwanted advertisements from third parties. In instances of political protest however, does the projection of commentary on the exterior public space fit this definition? While the city of New York seemed to think so, the charges were ultimately struck down in criminal court, with IAC’s lawyer Sam Cohen rightly pointing out that a streaming projection fails to fit the standard definition of “affixing. ”

It follows that if IAC’s political projections fail to meet the definition of unlawful posting of advertisements; they similarly fail to match the legal requirements of vandalism. Vandalism is defined as the deliberate defacing or destruction of property. While it is clear that plastering a non-affixable projection to the façade of a building fails to constitute destruction, does it deface? Defacing implies the marking of a surface-though not in a severe a fashion as destruction. Therefore, IAC’s unique brand of projector activism exists as a clever exercise of first amendment free speech.

CONCLUSION

As curators and archivists undertake the arduous process of compiling artifacts for physical and digital preservation, many questions remain about the legality and posterity of protest art. What is the optimal manner by which to preserve political or artistic ephemera? Who is best situated to protect artists’ rights to create and capitalize on their own art? What do keepers of protest art see when they preserve or trade in this kind of creative output? While political upheaval and tragedy prompt inflections from diverse global communities, museum archivists and administrators as well as art dealers and collectors look to preserve the artifacts for entirely different reasons. Due to the changing and often unsettled landscape of political protest art, artists and collectors alike may find themselves in need of legal advice to obtain information about available protections and defenses.

Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal, Summer 2016, Vol. 27, No. 2, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, New York 12207.

About the Author: Scotti Hill is a J.D. Candidate, 2018 from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. She served as a summer 2016 intern for the Center for Art Law, and she can be reached at scottiaustinhill@gmail.com.

The New Copyright Small Claims Bill: A Ray of Hope for Independent Photographers

By Adelaide Dunn*

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-4-11-35-amThe U.S. Copyright Act’s single regulatory system fails to accommodate the diversity of production methods, output speeds and business models of today’s creative entrepreneurs. In the eyes of independent and freelance artists, one of copyright’s greatest flaws is its requirement that an infringement claim be litigated in a federal court – an endeavor accruing costs that often far surpass the value of the work at issue. Since 2006, the United States Copyright Office has been questioning creators, holding panel discussions and conducting research pertaining to a new model for resolving small claims. The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2016 (“CASE Bill”), introduced in July this year, would create a new Copyright Small Claims Board (“Board”) facilitating the resolution of claims valued below $30,000 in actual damages. The aim is to overcome two of the most common criticisms of copyright law: that its systems favor large corporations over independent and freelance creators, and that it is an abstract set of rules that the general public chooses to ignore. The CASE Bill sketches out an ambitious yet promising new system that has the potential to facilitate settlements, dissuade infringing activity (particularly online), and ensure remedies for copyright infringement are available to low-income creators.

The proposed Board is a streamlined, inexpensive, Internet-based dispute resolution system to be administered by the Copyright Office. Three Officers are to act as adjudicators – two having had significant experience representing or presiding over a diversity of copyright interests, and the third having expertise in alternative dispute resolution. Decisions are primarily made on the papers filed with the administration. Hearings or discussions towards settlement can take place over teleconferencing facilities where needed. The system is designed without the need for attorneys, such that rules of procedure are relaxed, discovery is minimal, and costs are only awarded for cases brought in bad faith. All copyright defenses, including fair use, are available. Because of constitutional limitations, participation with the Board is voluntary, and its decisions do not create precedent.

Creative associations such as The Professional Photographers of America (“PPA”) and the Authors’ Guild are seeing their long-term lobbying efforts come to fruition. The type of creator in need of the new system is what the PPA describes as “low value, high volume” – individuals such as designers, illustrators and photographers – who spend time creating many copyrightable works that are individually of low commercial value. The business of photographers is profoundly affected by online copyright infringement, such that photographers are the prime candidates for the new system (and the example used in this article).

The copyright woes of the independent photographer

Photographers differ from “low volume, high value creators” – such as film directors – who channel their creative efforts into one high value work at a time. A photographer may take hundreds of copyrightable photographs in a day, while also conducting the day-to-day administrative tasks of running a small business. It is easy – and habitual – for Internet users to share photographs without permission, often with watermarks and rights information scrubbed from images or metadata. Exacerbating the issue is the common belief that works of creative expression that appear online – particularly images – are free for the taking. According to a survey by the PPA, 70% of professional photographers have had their work infringed over the past three years.

It is unsurprising that photographers have long protested our “one size fits all” copyright system. Although photographers and filmmakers both depend financially on the licensing of copyright in their works, filmmakers are often better placed to pursue infringement claims. With a stable, financed project overseen by numerous stakeholders, a filmmaker and her studio receive comprehensive legal advice. Attorneys maintain the film’s “IP-hygiene”, including ensuring that copyright in the film (as well as in its posters, soundtrack and other components) is registered with the Copyright Office. Though a creator attains copyright automatically on the creation of the work, the Copyright Act requires that a plaintiff possess a registration certificate before bringing suit for infringement. Registering works in a timely way means that the plaintiff can recover attorney fees from the defendant (17 U.S.C. § 505). It also enables the plaintiff to recover statutory damages, which do not require proof of actual damage, and can be significant (up to $150,000 if the infringing activity is found to be willful) (§ 504(c)).

Softer registration requirements

The registration requirement has been criticized for benefiting the deep-pocketed and well advised over the low-income creators that statutory damages and attorney fees are designed to benefit (Ciolli, 1007). A photographer often lacks the time and money to register his works, given that the Copyright Office’s fees average between $35 – $55 per work, and differ for “published” and “unpublished” works – a distinction many photographers see as burdensome and outdated due to the digital sharing ecosystem. The new small claims system bypasses these difficulties and caters to the reality that most creators do not learn of the legal benefits of a registration certificate until a dispute has arisen that necessitates one. To file a claim, a complainant needs only to have submitted an application for a registration, and can still recover statutory damages if successful. The Board can also award actual damages and profits, but because these are complex calculations in copyright disputes, the combination of statutory damages and soft registration rules will be a boon to photographers.

The Copyright Office will need to create a user-friendly digital platform that allows for e-registrations to be made contemporaneously with the filing of claims. Because many photographers will participate pro se, the platform will be critical in communicating instructions and providing downloadable forms and templates to aid the drafting of briefs. But such a system is probably outside of the Copyright Office’s current IT capacities. Register Maria Pallante has testified to the U.S. House of Representatives that the Copyright Office’s resources are inadequate to support the current digital economy, and that allowing the Copyright Office to establish itself as an autonomous body (independent of the Library of Congress) will give it the authority to make IT investments in furtherance of its own modernization goals (Pallante, 7). Whether these recommendations will eventuate remains to be seen.

Lower costs and streamlined proceedings

It is neither time nor cost effective for a photographer to pursue an infringement claim in a federal court. The PPA has surveyed its members and found that – however numerous – most infringements of single photographs cost below $3,000 (PPA). At the same time, the American Intellectual Property Law Association’s 2015 Report of the Economic Survey indicates that the median cost for a claimant to litigate a copyright infringement suit with less than $1 million at stake through appeal is $250,000 (AIPLA). Even mediating that dispute would cost a median of $40,000 (Ibid.). In addition, according to the 2015 Federal Judicial Caseload Statistics, civil trials take approximately twenty-five months to conclude (Administrative Office of the US Courts). The length is due in part to delaying tactics aimed at draining the other side’s resources and inducing an unequal settlement, such as delaying discovery and filing unnecessary pre-trial motions. Wealthy defendants have strong incentives to behave this way towards low-income adversaries, to ensure that lawyers working pro bono or on contingency bases cannot bear the burden of the full trial.

Indeed, while most content creators are private, most content users – and infringers – are corporate (Wild). The photographer Alex Wild, who left the professional photography business due to frustrations with copyright, writes that his signature extreme close-up insect photographs have been used without permission on venues as diverse as billboards, newspaper articles, video game graphics, company logos, board games, pest-control trucks and iPhone cases (Wild). The corporate disregard for copyright is doubly frustrating to photographers who rely on licenses issued to corporations in those exact sectors.

Key procedures of the Board are aimed at leveling the playing field. To prevent unnecessary delays, rules of civil procedure are simplified, and procedural and discovery-related counterclaims are not accommodated for. Discovery is limited to the production of relevant information, documents and written interrogatories, in order to allow the parties to obtain material facts, establish proof of actual damages, and rebut evidence. The Board also substitutes a formal appeal process with narrow administrative review procedures. This would prevent losing parties with substantial resources from re-litigating a dispute in a federal court.

Potential for collaborative approaches to dispute resolution

Perhaps the Board’s most promising function is to facilitate settlements. The abbreviated and inexpensive trial would give the parties an idea of the merits of their cases, leading to productive discussions, overseen by the Officers. The Board’s utilization of mediation techniques – aided by the Officer with expertise in alternative dispute resolution – could lead to a holistic approach to problem solving. This would give artists an outlet for airing their grievances while also bypassing the power struggles of adversarial trials. Resolutions could lead to innovative and therapeutic business arrangements, such as ongoing royalty fees, partnerships and other agreements.

Criticisms

The CASE Bill is not without its detractors. The foremost worry is that the ease of filing claims will open the Board to abuse by copyright trolls. However, the CASE Bill provides that a Copyright Claims Attorney review each claim to ensure that it complies with copyright law (including, presumably, that it establishes a prima facie case of copyright infringement), before the adversary can be served. In aid of pro se claimants, there are then two opportunities to improve a deficient claim. Though the parties must bear their own costs, the Board may award attorney fees and costs up to $5000 to a party adversely affected by a harassing or improper claim, creating a monetary disincentive against meritless or frivolous claims.

A related worry is that large corporations hiring attorneys will have a significant advantage over pro se parties in terms of the quality of pleadings and submissions. Indeed, organizations such as New Media Rights, California Lawyers for the Arts, and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts will presumably be vital in helping artists file claims. Interestingly, the CASE Bill also permits qualified law students to represent complainants. Law schools might take this opportunity to set up clinics and internship programs, benefiting both the students taking part and parties in need of representation.

Critics also question whether the Officers should be empowered to make fair use determinations, which are notoriously uncertain and complex. However, as Register Pallante has noted, fair use is a critical safeguard of the Copyright Act (Pallante, 29), which is particularly true with regard to the creation of contemporary art. The availability of the defense will also give respondents an incentive to engage with the Board, and ensure that copyright law continues to align with legitimate consumer expectations. The Officers’ expertise in copyright law will help with the streamlining of fair use decisions. They may develop simpler proxies with which to apply fair use concepts such as transformative use, given that small claims do not have the same cultural and economic ramifications as federal fair use cases (such as the Second Circuit’s recent holding that Google Books amounts to fair use: Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google, Inc.).

Further, the Board does not have a mechanism with which to identify anonymous online infringers. However, its issuance of subpoenas might give further burdensome enforcement duties to Internet Service Providers. Notably, the Copyright Royalty Board has the authority to issue subpoenas but has never exercised this (Copyright Office, 124). The Board also cannot grant injunctions. Though some argue that this might render its determinations toothless, a contrary opinion is that copyright owners can gain unfair leverage through threats of injunctions, and awarding licensing fees in the alternative might lead owners and users to bargain more effectively (Pamela Samuelson et al). Indeed, the Supreme Court in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose noted that a system relying on monetary relief rather than restrictions on commercial behavior might better serve the purposes of copyright and facilitate the lawful use of copyright protected works (at 578 n. 10). The Board can, however, require the respondent to cease the infringing conduct, which appears to be a kind of soft injunction. Because of the voluntary nature of the proceedings, this remedy might function like a contractual promise.

Conclusion

The time is ripe for a new dispute resolution system catering to more diverse range of creators. Currently, the CASE Bill has been referred to the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, and has not yet passed the House. Whether it will pass before the next Congressional session begins in January is unclear. But as it incorporates years of research and comments from the Copyright Office, scholars and creative associations, it or a similar law’s incorporation into the Copyright Act seems likely. Indeed, it would align the U.S. with other jurisdictions instigating similar systems, such as the United Kingdom, which in 2012 began to allow informal hearings in its Intellectual Property Enterprise Court regarding claims for infringement of copyright, trademark or unregistered design rights (valued below £10,000). For the U.S., the new system has potential to transform copyright law into an everyday business reality, to give a voice to artists who are currently silenced by the federal system, and to lead to more collaborative and innovative solutions to copyright infringement.

 

Sources:

  • Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2016, H.R. 5757, 114th Cong. (2016).
  • Copyright Act (17 U.S.C.).
  • Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 578 n. 10 (1994).
  • Jeffrey Bils, David’s Sling: How to Give Copyright Owners a Practical Way to Pursue Small Claims, 62 U.C.L.A. L. Rev. 464 (2015).
  • Anthony Ciolli, Lowering the Stakes: Toward a Model of Effective Copyright Dispute Resolution 110 W. Va. L. Rev. 1000 (2007).
  • Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Services (United Kingdom), Guide to the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court and Small Claims Track (July, 2014).
  • Virginia Knapp Dorell, Picturing a Remedy for Small Claims of Copyright Infringement, 65 Admin. L. Rev. 449 (2013).
  • Jessica Litman, Real Copyright Reform, 96 Iowa L. Rev. 1 (2010).
  • David Nimmer, A Modest Proposal to Streamline Fair Use Determinations, 24 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L. J. 11 (2006).
  • Register Maria Pallante, The Register’s Perspective on Copyright Review, Statement Before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives (April 29, 2015).
  • Joel Reidenberg, The Rule of Intellectual Property Law in the Internet Economy, 44 Hous. L. Rev. 1073 (2008).
  • Pamela Samuelson et al., The Copyright Principles Project: Directions for Reform, 25 Berkeley Tech. L. J. 1175 (2010).
  • United States Copyright Office, Copyright Small Claims – A Report of the Register of Copyrights (September 2013).

 

*About the Author: Adelaide Dunn recently graduated with a Master of Laws in Competition, Innovation and Information Law from the New York University School of Law. Before that, she completed a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and a Bachelor of Laws with Honors from The University of Auckland in New Zealand. Adelaide is particularly interested in the intersections of copyright, moral rights and the visual arts. She is currently doing intellectual property, entertainment and commercial law work as a law clerk for a solo practitioner in New York City. Adelaide can be reached at adelaide1dunn@gmail.com.

Realities of Fan Fiction: Paramout To Boldly Drop Lawsuit

By David Honig, Esq.*

Star_Trek_TOS_logo_(1)

In 1966 the world was introduced to the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701! On September 8, 2016, 50 years will have passed since we joined that intrepid crew on its five year mission. Over the course of
a half century
Star Trek has amassed a following unlike any other. The original series, which only made it to the air because of Lucille Ball, lasted only three seasons before it was canceled. Gene Roddenberry’s tale of a future where humanity put its petty differences aside to unite and explore the stars did not end, however, when the last episode aired on June 3, 1969.

tumblr_o2awj8Rh0Z1rwjpnyo1_500After being canceled Star Trek spawned a franchise that consists of an animated television series, major motion pictures, comic books, novels, numerous spin-off shows and a Las Vegas attraction. But most importantly, Star Trek took firm root in the hearts of its fans. As a testament to their devotion, fans have learned Star Trek’s alien language Klingon, going as far as translating Hamlet, and a few other works, into their beloved alien tongue.

Like all good works of fiction, Star Trek developed a life of its own and inspired a parade of  unauthorized fan fiction. While a phenomenon like Star Trek lives and dies with the fans, it  exists as property owned not by the fans but by a major corporation. As such, Paramount and CBS have a vested interest in protecting the rights associated with their copyrights under 17 U.S.C. 106. Specifically, the copyright holder has exclusive rights to reproduce, create derivative works, distribute copies, and perform and display the work publicly.

Fan fiction regularly infringes a copyright because copyright often covers more than just the work itself. Instead, copyright has been extended to cover characters and settings as well as other literary elements, see Walt Disney Productions v. Air Pirates, 581 F.2d 751, 754-5 (2d Cir. 1978).

Fan fiction violates the exclusive rights of a copyright holder in two ways, expressly or through derivative works. A piece of fan fiction that incorporates a character or setting from the original work infringes – since, as just discussed, the character is subject to copyright protection and using the character violates the exclusive right to reproduce. Similarly, fan fiction violates the exclusive right to create derivative works even as  the fan-author creates her own story, because of familiar settings or characters derived from the original work. It is also worth noting that selling or distributing fan fiction does not change the fact that it infringes the original copyright. Commercializing a work, or more precisely the effect on the market for the original copyright, only comes in when determining whether the fair use exception applies not whether something infringes.

When deciding to prosecute copyright infringement the holder is faced with a Kobayashi Maru scenario – in the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru refers to a training exercise designed to place starfleet cadets in a no-win scenario. The copyright holder must decide whether it should allow the copyright to be infringed or enforce its rights and risk the ire of fans. The amount of money involved in fan fiction infringement is usually nominal compared to the risk of alienating fans. Additionally, because of the  uncertainty of fair use protection under 17 U.S.C. 107, fan fiction is often left alone even when the potential infringer is making money. This is a simple cost benefit analysis. However, there are instances where the holder does assert its copyright and recently some Star Trek fan fiction has fallen into that category.

Anyone who has ever been to a comic convention knows that there are people dressed up as starfleet officers, members of the United Federation of Planets or other Star Trek Characters. These fans are often wearing uniforms that they made themselves which include elements that are subject to copyright protection – such as the starfleet insignia. For various reasons Paramount and CBS will not go after these fans, the damages are de minimis

In addition to wearing costumes, many of these fans will also create their own movies, comics or other form of art – even the Internal Revenue Service is not above creating such a video. These videos are usually viewed as harmless since they have no impact on the market for the genuine article and if anything they endear fans to the source even more by allowing them to continue to engage in ways that traditional content does not allow. There is a limit, however, to what the Star Trek copyright holders will accept before they begin enforcing their rights. It seems that a fan project that raised over a million dollars and was set to be released the same year as Paramount’s next installment in the Star Trek motion picture franchise was too much.

Star Trek: Axanar, a fan film set before the original 1966 television series, raised over a million dollars on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. The film, which follows a successful short that raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter in 2014, raised its funds with some encouragement from Star Trek alum George Takei. With a mounting economic incentive, on December 29, 2015 Paramount and CBS filed a lawsuit against the producer of the film, Axanar Productions (“Axanar”), alleging copyright infringement.

george_takei_sulu_star_trek

George Takei as Sulu on the set of Star Trek

Among other aspects of Star Trek such as history and characters, the complaint claimed a copyright over languages. What might have seemed to be one more violation to the copyright holder and its attorneys ended up developing a life of its own.

First Axanar, responded by filing a motion to dismiss claiming that Klingon, a language invented for Star Trek, could not be protected by copyright law under Baker v. Seldon, 101 U.S. 99 (1879), because it is an idea or system. In response, Paramount claimed that the Klingon language isn’t useful, wholly fictitious and “there are no Klingons with whom to communicate.” After Paramount responded to Axanar’s motion the Language Creation Society submitted an amicus brief in support of Axanar.

The brief begins with a curious footnote quoting Marc Okrand, author of The Klingon Dictionary and creator of the language, claiming  Okrand “has asserted that the Klingon language, tlhlngan Hol, was received by him from a captured Klingon named Maltz.” The brief thus concludes that Plaintiffs cannot claim otherwise in this litigation, citing to Arica Inst., Inc. v. Palmer, 970 F.2d 1067, 1075 (2d Cir. 1992), to support its position. The Language Creation Society does not pull any punches stating, “Feeling ownership and having ownership are not the same thing.”

The Language Creation Society’s brief is quite an enjoyable read. The brief quotes Star Trek: The Next Generation, recognizes there is a child who was raised as a native speaker of Klingon and intersperses Klingon phrases written in the Klingon alphabet throughout. What might appear as gimmicks actually make the Language Creation Society’s point stronger – Klingon is a real language spoken by real people so much so that it can be used coherently in a brief amicus curaie. If the point of filing this brief was to argue that Klingon has taken on a life of its own as a communication system then there truly is no more powerful tool to prove this postulate than by showing Klingon can indeed act as a communication system instead of just reporting on its wide use.

Alas, the issue will not be adjudicated, at least not in this case. On Friday May 20, 2016 J.J. Abrams, the director of the first two Star Trek reboot films, announced that the lawsuit against Axanar would be dropped. The announcement was made during a fan event to promote the third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, which Abrams serves as a producer, Star Trek Beyond. Unfortunately, this voyage is not yet over.

Abrams merely announced that Paramount WOULD drop the lawsuit not that the lawsuit WAS dropped. In fact, four days after the announcement Axanar an answered amended complaint and filed a counterclaim to ensure it met court ordered filing deadlines. Additionally, CBS and Paramount are working on fan film guidelines and if Star Trek: Axanar, or some other fan film, does not follow those guideline then the Star Trek copyrights will most likely be enforced again. Clearly there is still work to be done before Axanar, its fans, and producers and fans of other Star Trek fan fiction can proclaim Qapla’.

About the Author: David Honig is a post graduate fellows at the Center for Art Law. He is a member of the Brooklyn Law School class of 2015. While attending law school he focused his studies on intellectual property and was a member of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy (BLIP) Clinic. He is admitted to New York and New Jersey state bars. In the Fall of 2016 he will be pursuing an LL.M. in taxation from NYU Law.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advise. Instead, readers should seek an attorney.

Protect Your Face: Body Art and Copyright (Part II)

By Samantha Elie*

While some of us makeup challenged women consider it a feat of artistic brilliance when we achieve that perfect cat eye with our eyeliner, an individual’s makeup art is not protected under copyright law unless that cat eye is the final touch in a Cat’s stage makeup. In the landmark case Carell v. Shubert, 104 F.Supp.2d 236 (S.D.N.Y. 2000), the Southern District of New York held that the stage makeup featured in the Broadway musical Cats was protectable under copyright law. Even though the actors in the show changed, the court considered makeup to be sufficiently fixed in the same way they consider choreography (with its ever-changing dancers) to be fixed. The Cats makeup, which required up to eight layers of makeup and several hours of work each night, was found to be an original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium, thereby satisfying the elements necessary for copyright protection under 17 U.S.C. § 102. Carell will

cats

One of the characters from Cats!

likely serve as an important precedent for Paramount Pictures and CBS, who filed a complaint in December 2015 claiming copyright infringement against Axanar, a Star Trek fan film. The complaint, Complaint, Paramount Pictures Co. v. Axanar Prod. Inc., No. 2:15-cv-09938-RGK-E (C.D.C.A. Dec. 29, 2015), alleges a wide variety of violations, ranging from copyright infringement of plot points to characters to cosmetic details. The complaint includes claims that Axanar infringed “Klingon’s spiky makeup and the Vulcans’ pointy ears and eyebrows.” Because each claim of infringement must be considered individually, the court should examine individual characters’ makeup separately not only from each other but also separate from the plot points and use of phrases such as “beam me up.”  According to Carell, this original makeup, fixed in countless movies and television episodes, may also receive copyright protection. It is now up to the court to determine whether Axanar infringed on these distinctive character features.

The creative use of makeup may also garner IP protection under Trademark Law. When stage makeup is distinctive enough and used to identify a source, such as the black and white geometric full face makeup of the band KISS, it may be trademarked under the Lanham Act. While copyright protects original works of authorship, trademark protects distinctive pictures, words, or symbols used by businesses to identify goods or services in commercial activity. Registering a makeup design with the Patent and Trademark Office is uncommon, with the band KISS being the first to register a makeup-related trademark and subsequently holding most of the makeup registrations according to IPelton. Initially, the USPTO denied KISS’s application. However, the band’s lawyer, Raymond E. Scott, was able to persuade the trademark office to allow protection for the band’s makeup by proving that the distinctive makeup was more recognizable than the actual band members. To accomplish this, Scott “actually had somebody sit in for Peter Criss, the drummer, and wear the same make-up and nobody knew” the difference.

While extremely unique and time/labor intensive stage makeup may be protected by both copyright and trademark law, everyday makeup cannot be a source identifier protected by trademark law and lacks sufficient originality for copyright law. Everyday makeup may even be considered scènes à faire — an element of a creative work that is not protected under copyright law because it is customary to the genre (for example, a spy movie is expected to contain secret gadgets hidden in watches). So where on the spectrum from everyday makeup to the unique character makeup does the blurry line of copyright protection lie? Like everyday makeup, high fashion or ‘special day’ makeup — i.e. wedding, prom, red carpet, or any time a limo is involved — will not receive copyright protection. While it is customary for wedding or fashion photographers to credit makeup artists in their portfolios or magazines, it is unnecessary in the eyes of the law. The photographer retains full copyright of the finished photograph and the makeup artist has no legal recourse nor inherent right to use the photograph in their own portfolio. One way to avoid any confusion is for makeup artists to have a contract with the photographer setting out what is expected of both parties. Expectations may include the specific rights of each party, who will be credited for what, and where and how each party will receive credit.

The most recent question to arise in the realm of makeup art is whether a makeup artist can copy an avant garde artist’s dramatic facial implants without plagiarizing the original artist’s work. On January 6, 2016, c

gaga-copy

Still from “Born This Way

ontemporary French artist Orlan requested subpoenas in Manhattan federal court intending to depose the creative team, including makeup artist Billy Brasfield, behind Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way.” The 2011 “Born This Way” video features Lady Gaga dancing around sporting what the media called “bizarre flesh-colored facial horns” accentuating her cheekbones and forehead. While Gaga’s face in the video seemed shocking to the American media, those in the French art scene familiar with Orlan saw the video and body modification as reminiscent of Orlan’s “Carnal Art” from a quarter century before. From 1990 to 1995, the French artist underwent nine plastic surgeries, altering her face and body with implants and documenting the process. Additionally, at one point during Gaga’s video, her head is placed on Plexiglas surrounded by equally made up plastic decapitated heads, an apparent  nod (or ripoff) of Orlan’s 1996 work “Woman With Head.” Orlan and her team waited two years to bring the plagiarism suit against Gaga and her creative team for $31.7 million, originally filing suit in 2013 in Paris. Now, after almost three additional years, Orlan transferred the case to New York.

With so many potentially infringing images in Lady Gaga’s video, it is unclear whether Gaga’s prosthetic makeup will be held as infringing upon Orlan’s plastic surgeries or whether that issue will ever even come to a head. Even though Carell held that makeup is protectable under copyright law, the landscape of makeup art and copyright law is still relatively undeveloped. If cases such as Orlan and  Axanar proceed to trial, they could help brighten the line and provide guidance in the future for the legal protection of makeup art.

Selected Sources:

*About the Author: Samantha Elie (J.D Candidate 2017) is a legal intern with Center for Art Law and a student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She may be reached at selie@law.cardozo.yu.edu.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.

Copyrights: To Register or Not to Register, That is the Question

By Elizabeth Weber, Esq.*

Copyright protection is a cornerstone of intellectual property law for those who create expressive works. However, a startling number of artists do not register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office for one reason or another, ranging from a lack of knowledge on how to go about registering a copyright or the unwillingness to register because a work is, technically, protected under copyright law the moment it is created. Whatever the underlying reason, those who do not register their copyrights are at a stark disadvantage for one main reason: an unregistered copyright holder, meaning the individual who owns the unregistered copyright, is precluded from suing an individual who infringes upon the work’s copyright in court. In short, only registered copyright holders may bring actions of copyright infringement against alleged infringers.

With this in mind, Center for Art Law believes that providing some basic information on copyrights and copyright law to our readers would prove beneficial. Please note that this article does not, in any way, shape, or form, constitute legal advice. If our readers have any questions about copyright law, we strongly urge them to consult an attorney.

A Bit of Background Information on U.S. Copyright Law

Modern copyright law stems from the United States Constitution. The Constitution granted Congress the power to issue both patent and copyright protection “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” U.S. Const. art. I § 8, cl. 8.

Copyright law aims to achieve two distinct goals: first, to provide authors the exclusive right to benefit from their creative works for a limited duration and, second, to stimulate the creative atmosphere by protecting works from unfettered widespread use. Thus, Congress incentivized the creation of artistic works by imbuing authors with the exclusive right to use and benefit from such works for a set period of time.

What is Copyrightable Subject Matter?

Modern copyright law is codified in Title 17 of the United States Code. 17 U.S.C. § 102 (a) states that “[c]opyright protection subsists . . . in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” and includes categories like literary, pictorial, and audiovisual works. Both published and unpublished works may qualify for copyright protection. Thus, so long as an artistic work is original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it may garner federal copyright protection.

The Code specifically precludes ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries from garnering copyright protection. 17 U.S.C. § 102 (b). However, the expression of these precluded subject matters may be protected in some limited circumstances.

Why Register A Copyright?

Once a copyright is infringed, the copyright holder may act to stop the infringer from exploiting the infringed copyright. The damages for infringement depend on whether the work was registered with the Copyright Office before any of the exclusive rights were violated. The amount of possible recovery ranges from $0.00, as actual damages may be nominal, to $150,000.00 per willful infringement if the copyright holder elects to seek statutory damages.  More detail about actual and statutory damages will be provided in the Remedies for Infringement: Actual Damages and Profits versus Statutory Damages section below.

A Copyright Basics Circular provided by the U. S. Copyright Office indicates that copyright registration provides the copyright holder with a number of advantages, including establishing a public record of the claimed copyright, which may dissuade potential infringers from unlawfully using the work; allowing the copyright holder to file a copyright infringement claim in court; establishing prima facie evidence of the copyright’s validity and of the facts set forth in the copyright certificate; and, “[i]f registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.”

Accordingly, registering a copyrighted work not only allows a copyright holder to sue an alleged infringer, but it also allows the copyright holder to seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees if the copyright holder registered the copyright within a certain time frame as discussed in 17 U.S.C. § 412. This may lead to a substantially higher damages award, which will be discussed in the Remedies for Infringement: Actual Damages and Profits versus Statutory Damages section below.

How to Register a Copyright

An application to register a copyright must contain three essential elements: 1) a completed application form; 2) a nonrefundable filing fee; and 3) a non-returnable deposit, which is a copy of the work being registered and deposited (hence the name) with the U.S. Copyright Office. These forms are available on the U.S. Copyright Office website. For reference, a step-by-step copyright registration guide is available on pages 7-12 of the Circular mentioned above.

Additionally, an applicant does not need a lawyer to register his or her copyright, so the applicant may fill out the requisite paperwork, send in the filing fee, and deposit a copy of the work with the U.S. Copyright Office at his or her own volition.

Copyright Infringement

A valid copyright issued by the U.S. Copyright Office provides the copyright holder with the exclusive right to use, reproduce, prepare derivative works, and perform the work publicly. If a third party infringes upon these rights and the copyright holder registered his or her copyright, the copyright holder may file a copyright infringement suit against the alleged infringer. The copyright holder may sue for injunctive relief, for the court to impound the infringing articles, and/or for damages stemming from the infringement.

Remedies for Infringement: Injunctive Relief and Impounding Infringing Works

If granted by the court, an injunction forces the infringing party to cease the infringing activities. Also, a copyright holder may move for or the court may order sua sponte the impounding of infringing works as the court deems reasonable. Finally, the copyright holder may seek either actual damages and any additional profits from the infringement or statutory damages.

Remedies for Infringement: Actual Damages and Profits versus Statutory Damages

A copyright infringer is liable for either 1) actual damages and profits stemming from the infringement or 2) statutory damages. A registered copyright holder is entitled to recover the actual damages suffered as a result of the infringement along with any additional profits gained from the infringement.

Alternatively, a registered copyright holder may elect, at any time before a final judgment is rendered, to recover statutory damages in lieu of actual damages and profits. Basically, statutory damages are set forth in the statute itself as opposed to being calculated based upon the harm suffered by the victim. In terms of copyright infringement, amounts vary for statutory damages from no less than $750.00 to no more than $30,000.00 per infringement as the court deems just.

Additionally, if the registered copyright owner proves (and the court finds) that the opposing party willfully infringed upon the copyright, the court may increase a statutory damages award to no more than $150,000.00 per infringement. Statutory damages awards are not always big money, though; if a registered copyright holder elects statutory damages and fails to prove willful infringement, the court may reduce the statutory damages award to no less than $200.00 per infringement.

Accordingly, the election of either actual damages and profits or statutory damages should be considered a strategic litigation decision. Registered copyright holders should consult with their attorneys and carefully consider the pros and cons of electing either set of damage awards.

Conclusion

There are certainly benefits derived from registering a copyrighted work. To summarize, in addition to allowing a copyright holder to file an infringement suit against an alleged infringer, registered copyright holders may also seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees depending upon when the holder registers the copyright – potentially leading to significantly higher damages awards.

However, artists should remember that simply because their works may be copied without permission, they need not take action. There is no requirement to enforce one’s copyright and there may be quantifiable benefits in seeing one’s work appear in another’s creative expression. While it is a good idea to consult an attorney with intellectual property questions and to protect one’s exclusive rights, the ultimate decision regarding these rights is open-ended and subject to the copyright holder’s interpretation.

Sources:

*About the Author: Elizabeth Weber is a lawyer living in Brooklyn, NY.  She graduated from the University of Florida Levin College of Law where she received her certificate in Intellectual Property Law and served as an active member of the Art Law Society and the Journal of Technology Law and Policy. She is the Spring 2016 Postgraduate Fellow with the Center for Art Law.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advice. Instead, readers should seek an attorney.

Whose Tattoos? Body Art and Copyright (Part I)

By Samantha Elie*

About a year ago my father got a tattoo. This man, who responded to my first tattoo by informing me that I had to cover it up for interviews and work, picked a design and got some ink of his own. But this move was not out of line with current trends: approximately one in five Americans has at least one tattoo, with the ratio rising to one in three for millennials aged 18-25. As tattoos continue to gain popularity and, more importantly, acceptance among mainstream Americans, the very culture of tattoos has altered. In a striking parallel to graffiti or street art, the counter-culture of tattoos at one time associated with rebellion, subversion and anti-consumerism has come to be considered an art form, with images being shown at Galleries in tattoo exhibitions. Yet, tattoos and, more generally “body art,” have not been able to fully integrate into the respectable art world’s business model. The very nature of imprinting a person provides no secondary market and no real way to display the works without the invasion of a person’s autonomy. The artist creates a work and then the work walks out into the world without him, at the mercy of the purchaser. When the customer happens to be a famous athlete or an artist, the tattoo could end up being featured in countless broadcasts, endorsements and films.

Tattoo artists are seeing their works being used as a comedic feature in a movie or as a way to sell video games, all without receiving any credit or recognition. In the past ten years, a handful of tattoo artists have begun asserting their rights, only to discover that the legal field has never officially defined to which rights tattoo artists are entitled. Starting in 2005 when artist Matthew Reed sued Nike over a commercial featuring a tattoo he created on NBA star Rasheed Wallace’s arm, a handful of artists have filed complaints for copyright infringement. Reed v. Nike, No. CV 05 198 (D. Or. 2005), 2005 WL 1182840. Yet all of these claims have settled out of court. Most famously, in Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entm’t Inc., No. 4:11-CV-752, 2011 WL 2038147 (Apr. 25, 2011), Mike Tyson’s tattoo artist sued for a preliminary injunction when Tyson’s distinctive tribal facial tattoo was recreated on Ed Helms’ character in the movie The Hangover II. It is important to note that Whitmill did not object to Mike Tyson (and thereby his tattoo) appearing in The Hangover. Nor did he object to Tyson’s face appearing in countless broadcast fights, or even in the form of an action figure, but only opposed his work being displayed on another person in a film for profit. While Warner Brothers and Whitmill settled out of court, providing few answers and little guidance for the future, prior to settlement, the judge claimed “of course tattoos can be copyrighted. I don’t think there is any reasonable dispute about that.” This quote has become the basis on which Solid Oak Sketches is suing the makers of the video game NBA 2K16 for their use of NBA players tattoos in their upcoming game.

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Image from: Art of Miami

On February 1, 2016, Solid Oak Sketches, LLC filed suit in NY Federal Court against Visual Concepts, 2K Games, and Take-Two Interactive Software. Complaint, Solid Oak Sketches, LLC v. Visual Concepts, LLC et al, No. 1:16-cv-00724, (Feb. 1, 2016).  Solid Oak Sketches is a firm that licenses the work of tattoo artists, including eight works that are featured in the video game NBA2K16, which was released in October 2015. One of these works, “Lion’s Head Tattoo Artwork” which is featured on Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James’ arm, is at the heart of this dispute. LeBron isn’t particularly camera shy, appearing as himself in countless baskeball games, press releases, award shows, talk shows, commercials, and even playing himself in Amy Shumer’s 2015 movie Trainwreck. So what makes this video game different? Similarly to The Hangover case, the use in the video game just feels more exploitive. The artist is not claiming rights over LeBron himself, but over the commercialization of his work. Until mid-February 2016, NBA 2K16 advertisements and analyses emphasized the realistic graphics and the ability to customize your players with real NBA tattoos. A video on Bleacher Report, which has been taken down, emphatically explained that players could customize their NBA avatars by choosing from a selection of tattoos, picking which NBA star would sport the ink, where on his body it would be located, the size and even rotation of the tattoo selected. Players were encouraged to mix and match, using their little NBA players as a canvas.  This suit is thus still distinguishing between claiming carte blanche ownership over a piece, which would “render a person ‘a virtual slave’ to the artist” as leading copyright scholar David Nimmer and others fear, from seeking due credit when an artist’s work is recreated on another.

Copyrightability?

Before anyone jumps on whether or not NBA2K16 infringed Solid Oak Sketches’ copyrights, are tattoos even copyrightable? In the same way that tattoos do not fit squarely into the art world’s business model, tattoos do not fit squarely into copyright law. Under the Copyright Act of 1976, to receive protection a work must be original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. 17 U.S.C. § 101 (2010). Tattoos are “sufficiently permanent” to meet the fixation requirement, and skin has already been deemed a tangible medium of expression. See Carell v. Shubert Org., 104 F. Supp.2d 236 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (granting copyright to a makeup artist’s facial design). As long as the tattoo in question is sufficiently original, there does not appear to be a statutory reason for denying copyrightability for a tattoo as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work under § 102(a)(5) of the Copyright Act.

But the decision to deny copyright protection may be policy based. The fear is that unless rights are carefully and clearly defined, an artist claiming full and robust protection may hold too much power over their customers. This could entitle the artist to control his customer’s image entirely, forcing athletes to wear extra clothing to the potential detriment of their performance, or risk having to pay-up every time a game is aired and a shoulder is left bare. However, these fears seem unfounded in the reality of tattoo culture. Artists have not flooded the courts with infringement suits despite the amount of celebrities with tattoos appearing across the media spectrum. The lawsuits that have emerged merely request recognition when tattoos appear in an exploitative manner: as the punchline to a multimillion dollar movie, as the selling point for a video game that sold 4 million copies in under one week. While it is important to clearly and carefully define the rights that tattoo artists hold, it is equally important to acknowledge that statutory rights to copyright protection should exist.

Defenses?

Some critics believe that even if tattoos are technically statutorily protected, the NBA2K16 case will be an air ball. While Fair Use will always be raised, the two more interesting defenses suggested are implied licenses and useful article. One possibility is that there exists an implied license between the artist and the customer. Despite not having a written agreement, an implied license allows the inked person some rights to the ink, but only to the extent that the inker would have allowed if there was a formal agreement. This would be a way to balance autonomy and individual freedom against tattoo artists rights. While this defense seems solid in protecting the NBA from infringement suits every time LeBron appears on television for games, it is much weaker when LeBron’s lion head appears on its own, independent from his body, and even weaker still when this unique tattoo appears on another NBA star’s avatar.

Similarly, the argument has been proposed that a tattoo is a useful article. If a tattoo is not separable (physically or conceptually) from the underlying “useful article” (read: the body) to which it’s attached, it’s not copyrightable. This allows people with tattoos to live their lives as they see fit, without being forever indebted to their former tattoo artists. And yet the NBA2K case, much like the Hangover II case, is opposing the idea of the tattoo appearing on its own or on another person. It seems unlikely that a tattoo can be a useful article inseparable from the underlying person when it appears on its own in a list of customizable features.

So what should everyone do in the meantime?

Perhaps the surest way to avoid copyright and other disputes stemming from unauthorized reproduction of tattoos is  to have the tattoo artist license the design or agree that the tattoo is a work for hire. These two options are would prevents any uncertainty. Licensing specifically is the method implemented by the NFL. After Whitmill v. Warner Bros. settled, the issue over ownership of tattoos became a “pressing issue,” and the league “advised agents to tell their players that when they get tattoos going forward they should get a release from the tattoo artist,” players were also encouraged to seek out former artists, if possible, and obtain releases. If the player fails to mitigate copyright claims and the artist sues, the player is required to indemnify the NFL Players Association and its associates. If getting a release isn’t appealing, the pain associated with the copyright infringement claim may be more lasting than that of getting inked.

Selected Sources:

 

*About the Author: Samantha Elie (JD Candidate 2017) is a legal intern with Center for Art Law and a student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She may be reached at selie@law.cardozo.yu.edu.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.

Let’s Get Digital!

By David Honig, Esq.

In 1946 the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering unveiled the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) introducing the world to what is often referred to as the first general purpose reprogrammable computer. Although ENIAC’s origins were military, the development of ENIAC was funded by the United States Army, its legacy is much more. Computer technology, evolved from a tool for the military, into, among other industries and applications, a tool for the arts and spawned a new genre: digital art. Some of the pioneers of digital art include Lillian Schwartz and Gopakumar R.

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Sedition Landing Page. 

In the twenty-first century, digital art is a fast growing medium even if it is not fully understood or integrated into the mainstream art world yet. Schools such as the University of Oregon, the University of Washington and Pratt Institute offer degrees in digital art. Additionally, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has funded The Space, a website that allows its users to explore digital art that has been commissioned or licensed by the website. According to BBC News, the BBC has already spent £3.6 million on The Space with another £8.1 million committed to the project. In addition to the BBC other major players in the art world have invested in digital art. Since 2002, the Whitney Museum of American Art has hosted an online gallery for digital art called Artport. According to the Artport website, it “provides access to original art works commissioned specifically for the artport by the Whitney…”  

As digital art becomes more accepted, purchased and commissioned by private collectors and institutions, like the BBC and the Whitney Museum, a new problem arises, namely dealing with issues of authenticity and reproducibility. The problem of authentication and unauthorized reproduction is often present when any form of copyrightable content is stored as a digital file. However, digital art presents a unique take on issues of authentication and unauthorized reproduction because unlike movies or music, the value of art is partially based on scarcity and the ability to prove authenticity.

When buying a piece of art the purchaser usually wants to know the piece is indeed original, if it is not unique than how many other copies are there, and that the work will not be endlessly (re)produced. Unlike, a physical work of art, digital art can be reproduced easily with the push of a button. This possibility for reproduction, as both the music and film industries know, affects the market for the genuine article.

Unlike in film and music, the producer and consumer in digital art are much more likely to be aligned in their desire to prevent the ability to reproduce the work. In the sphere of entertainment, the producer does not want film or music to be easily reproduced because unauthorized copies usually negatively impact the market for the good, but the consumer usually wants the ability to make copies so as to enjoy the song or movie on multiple devices without having to purchase a new copy. It is unclear whether when it comes to digital art, the consumer would wish to have multiples for different devices.

The ability to easily digitally reproduce a work also affects value of digital art because of issues of authenticity. Just like any other piece of art, the value of digital art is supported by the ability to prove that a work was indeed produced by the artist. When a work is easily reproduced the fact that it looks, and is in fact, exactly the same as the artist’s work is not enough to prove authenticity. These issues dealing with unauthorized reproduction and authentication have led to the use of innovative technologies, ranging from the simple and cumbersome to the complex and unseen, to find a possible solution.

The easiest solution to the problem of unauthorized copies and knowing whether a work is original would be to use physical or digital certificates of authenticity. Just like physical art, digital art can be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, either a printed piece of paper or a digitization of the same. In fact, a certificate of authenticity accompanies every piece of digital art sold by online art gallery Sedition. While many people would be able to access the work of art, only the holder of the certificate would actually “own” said original or authorized work. This creates an issue of whether the work or the certificate is more valuable.

Another solution, adding a watermark to the image, is also the most cumbersome and somewhat ineffective. A watermark could tell anyone viewing the artwork the identify of the author or where the work was originally posted. But, watermarks won’t prevent copying nor will they show who currently “owns” the “real” version of the work. There are two different types of watermarks that could be applied to digital art, what will be called traditional watermarks and digital watermarks.

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See example of a traditional watermark. Photo: Painter Eric Isenburger, ca. 1929. Source: http://docsanddocs.com/

A traditional watermark works by embedding an image or word onto the work to signify where the work was originally posted or the author of said work. A traditional watermark could possibly affect the viewer’s perception of the work because anyone viewing the work would be disrupted by the mark. Another problem is that traditional watermarks can be digitally removed with software such as Adobe Photoshop. Ultimately, a traditional watermark is vastly limited in its effectiveness.

A better solution would be to use digital watermarks. Digital watermarks are similar to traditional watermarks in the sense that both are used to store information – in this case that the article is genuine. The key difference is that with a digital watermark the information is embedded within the file instead of on the surface of the piece of art for all to see. A digital watermark still has some of the same flaws of a traditional watermark, it does not prevent the copying of data nor is it able to signify that it is the “original” or “authentic” version of the work. In fact, every time the work is copied so too is the watermark since it is embedded in the file.

There will never be a way to completely prevent the piracy of digital files, it is the nature of the Internet and digital media that if someone wants to copy a digital file they will find a way. However, there are ways to mitigate the damage to the value of authentic works that results from unauthorized copying, this issue is about protection for the purchaser which is different from the issue of copyright which deals with an author’s right to reproduce. Maybe because of all the shortcomings of watermarks many in the art world have turned to cryptocurrencies for the answer.

Cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, record the chain of ownership utilizing a database known as blockchain. Blockchain is a type of database that prevents tampering or revising. This means that once the work’s provenance is embedded into the file it can’t be modified. That’s not to say that future owners will not be able to have their names added to the blockchain it only means that any name placed on the blockchain cannot be removed.

Companies such as Monegraph, Ascribe and Verisart all use blockchain technology to catalogue digital works of art and their owners. Each company has their own way of using blockchain as well as other methods such as licenses to further enhance the rights of the artist and the purchaser. Since blockchain is a decentralized database the recording system will most likely be universal regardless of which provider the work was originally purchased through. Meaning, if someone buys a piece of art from Monegraph future sales probably do not have to be recorded through Monegraph.

It is unlikely that the internet’s penchant for copying digital files will ever stop. More innovations to prevent illegal copying will always be discovered and some coder somewhere will always find away around those methods. But people who buy art frequently value more than pure entertainment delivered by digital art, instead they buy art as investment pieces. So, although there might be millions of copies of a particular piece of art floating around for free on the internet only one, or a designated few, would truly be the work and only that version will be certified and retain any value. Most investors will most likely be hesitant to be an early adopter but that is usually the case with any new technology or medium.

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Profile for Ryan Whittier Hale on Sedition.

That being said, a secondary market currently exists within Sedition. Through Trade, collectors can sell digital art from their collections. Sellers set the price they wish to receive and buyers bid on the work. The seller has the option to accept any bid even if it is below the set price. In addition to having a secondary market Sedition sells works by Gopaumar R. and Damien Hirst. Clearly there is enough of an interest in creating digital art that major players in the art world are not only experimenting with creating digital art but also with the new digital art dealers. What remains to be seen is whether a market for this type of art can be sustained.

In the concluding chapter of her book, The Computer Artist’s Handbook: Concepts, Techniques and Applications, Lillian Schwartz states that “[t]he computer also represents a process. But it is a polymorph of mathematical and logical design. What it can do is subject to what we believe it can do for us.” Just as the art itself must come from human creativity, methods for protecting the same must come from human ingenuity. As time goes on and digital art becomes more accepted new and better methods of creation, distribution and protection will be developed as well.

About the Author: David Honig is a post graduate fellows at the Center for Art Law. He is a member of the Brooklyn Law School class of 2015. While attending law school he focused his studies on intellectual property and was a member of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy (BLIP) Clinic. He is admitted to New York and New Jersey state bars.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advise. Instead, readers should seek an attorney.

Seeing Double: Nearly Identical Photograph Sparks Copyright Controversy

By Loren Pani*

Imagine the following scenario: You go on vacation with a group and take a gorgeous photo of some natural object. Mere seconds later, someone, standing almost exactly where you were standing, takes a photo of the same natural object. Years later you submit the photo for a contest, win the contest, then promptly find out that someone has claimed that you might be infringing their copyright. If this sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t because it happened to a British student in 2006 who took a photo of an iceberg in the Patagonia ice fields. This begs the question:

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Center for Art Law, Oct. 21, 2015.

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Center for Art Law, Oct. 21, 2015.

 

Can you have a successful claim for copyright infringement if the photo is not copied, but is nearly identical?

 

Almost from the time that photographs were considered copyrightable subject matter they were challenged in court. In Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, the defendants argued that photographs were neither writings (as specified in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution) nor works of authorship since they involved a mechanical process. The Court upheld the copyrightability of photographs and concluded that they were both writings and works of authorship. For purposes of the Copyright Act, anyone deemed an “author” of a photograph is able to sue for infringement under Section 501. “Whether a particular photograph has been infringed will, of course, be determined by the ordinary substantial similarity test, tempered by the fact that a photographer may not obtain exclusive rights over the object depicted—ruling out any claim of infringement when another photographer reshoots the same object or scene without copying plaintiff’s originality over the mood evoked by the photograph or a scenes a faire.” The court in Leigh v. Warner Bros., Inc. noted that there is a relatively narrow scope of protection for photographers who takes images of natural objects and scenes. Often, photographers make the claim that they are responsible for the “mood” of a particular photograph, which includes lighting, shading, timing, angle, etc. For example, in the case of Sahuc v. Tucker, plaintiff claimed that defendant infringed upon plaintiff’s copyright. The photographs at issue involved the famous St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans shrouded in mist and taken from the same angle. The court noted that although plaintiff made a valid effort to show that the two photos were identical, slight variations of the photographs lead to the conclusion that they were not substantially similar.

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Photograph by Marisol Ortiz Elfeldt, Nov. 6, 2006.

Photograph by Sarah Scurr, Nov. 6, 2006.

Photograph by Sarah Scurr, Nov. 6, 2006.

In the case of the photographs of the iceberg, it is clear that both of the photographers captured a different image and that the British student did not make a photocopy or reproduction of the other’s photograph. Furthermore, since it is a natural object, neither would be able to claim copyright on the iceberg itself. Therefore, a claim for copyright infringement would fail even though the images were nearly identical. To give protection to the photograph would open up a Pandora’s box of issues and would invite baseless lawsuits into court from people who claimed that someone else infringed their copyright. Even worse, it would force governments to make certain natural and man-made objects off-limits to photographs as some countries have done with their national treasures. Going forward, as long as a photographer doesn’t go to pains to recreate the “mood” of a particular scene, there should be no issues of copyright infringement. It is only in those rare circumstances that photographers have a viable copyright infringement claim.

Selected Sources:

About the Author: Loren Pani, a volunteer with Center for Art Law, recently graduated from Brooklyn Law School and is now working for the firm of Alter, Kendrick & Baron, LLP as a music copyright attorney (pending admission to the New York Bar).

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.

The Statute of Limitations Invoked to Dismiss Copyright Claims (Source: NYSBA EASL Blog)

Joel L. Hecker, counsel for Gideon Lewin, in the ongoing case of Gideon Lewin v. The Richard Avedon Foundation (2015) offers some comments on the the case that invoked statute of limitations in a copyright claim
Following, is an excerpt from the Hecker’s article:
“On June 26, 2015, a decision of interest concerning the application of the statute of limitations and work made for hire doctrine in connection with copyright litigation was issued in the Southern District of New York. The case is Gideon Lewin vs. The Richard Avedon Foundation, docket No. 11-cv-8767 (KMW) (FM). The court dismissed the The Richard Avedon Foundation’s (the Foundation) affirmative claims that photographs created by Lewin while he was acting as studio manager for Richard Avedon between 1965 and 1980 were works made for hire, since it waited too long to raise the defense. However, the work made for hire argument, ruled the court, is still available as an affirmative defense to Lewin’s suit for declaratory judgment that he owns such copyrights.”

Full text available here.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.