A copyright is a legal protection that gives a person the right to choose if and when a work of art is exhibited, published or performed. It can pertain to items ranging from photos to music recordings to graphic designs. Anyone who works in a creative field should have a basic understanding of how copyright works and how to properly secure ownership of their work.
To illustrate what happens when people don’t properly pay attention to usage rights, we’ve assembled a list of several high profile lawsuits involving the improper licensing of creative assets.
Vampire Weekend vs. Ann Kirsten Kennis
Ann Kirsten Kennis was shocked when her daughter came home one day with a copy of Vampire Weekend’s sophomore album, Contra, featuring her image on the cover. The image was a Polaroid of Kennis from her modeling days in the 1980s.
Kennis filed a $2 million lawsuit against Vampire Weekend, their record label and photographer Tod Brody. When he licensed them the photo, Brody provided the band with a signed model release form; however, Kennis claims that the signature on that document was forged. She also cast doubt about whether Brody had even been the photographer.
In August 2011, Kennis settled with Vampire Weekend and their label for an undisclosed sum. Although the band contends that it followed proper channels and was misled by Brody, the court could have found them guilty of having not exercised proper due diligence. Kennis’ lawsuit is still ongoing.
Associated Press vs. Shepard Fairey
The iconic image of the 2008 presidential election was the Obama Hope poster. The Associated Press claimed that street artist Shepard Fairey created the image by stenciling an AP photo of Barack Obama, which he did not license. Fairey filed a lawsuit against the AP initially claiming that he based his poster on a different photo. He later amended his claim, saying that he was mistaken and had in fact used the AP photo, but that his interpretation was protected under fair use.
Although the two parties reached a private settlement, Fairey was later sentenced with 300 hours of community service and had to pay a fine of $25,000 stemming from the fact that he destroyed and fabricated documents during the lawsuit.
GoldieBlox vs. Beastie Boys
GoldieBlox is a San Francisco startup that makes toys meant to help young girls develop an interest in engineering and science. In 2013, the toy company released a YouTube video featuring their product and a version of the Beastie Boys’ song Girls. Although the Beastie Boys applauded the video’s creativity and the company’s mission, they were not pleased that their song was being used in an ad, particularly since recently deceased band member Adam Yauch’s will explicitly stated that their music could never be used for advertising purposes.
When contacted by the band, GoldieBlox filed a lawsuit against the BeastieBoys claiming that their usage of the song was a parody protected under fair use. GoldieBlox lost and their settlement included having to issue a public apology and to donating a percentage of their profits to one or more education-related charities chosen by the Beastie Boys.
Buzzfeed vs. Kai Eiselein
In June 2010, Buzzfeed published a collection of soccer photos under the headline “The 30 Funniest Header Faces.” One of the images was taken from photographer Kai Eiselien’s Flickr account without his consent. When Eiselein contacted Buzzfeed about the issue, they removed the photo, but by that time, the photo collection had already spread to dozens of other websites. Eissen filled a $3.6 million lawsuit against Buzzfeed, claiming that Buzzfeed was liable for the copyright infringement that occurred both on their site and the sites that subsequently published his photo. The lawsuit is currently pending.
Jeff Koons vs. Art Rogers
In 1988, artist Jeff Koons debuted a collection of sculptures that focused on the banality of everyday life. One of the sculptures, String of Puppies, featured a man and woman holding eight German Shepard puppies. The sculpture bore a striking resemblance to one of photographer Art Rogers’ photos, titled Puppies.
Koons admited that he saw Rogers’ photo on a postcard and based his sculpture on it, but that his interpretation was a parody protected by fair use. A jury ultimately awarded Rogers a large cash settlement, stating that since Koons wasn’t directly commenting on Rogers’ photo, he could have based his sculpture on a more generic source.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye
The song “Blurred Lines” was a huge hit for Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. However, the family of deceased singer Marvin Gaye believe that the song is similar to Gaye’s 1977 song, “Got To Give it Up.” Upon hearing these claims, Thicke and Williams sued the Gaye estate. The “Blurred Lines” lawsuit claims that the song is non-infringing and that the Gaye family is attempting to claim copyright over an entire genre of music. The Gayes, in turn, countersued.
In October 2014, a U.S. District Court ruled that the Gaye family’s claims may have some merit and that the case could proceed. The judge said there seem to be “substantial similarities” between the two songs, specifically with regard to signature phrases, hooks, bass lines, keyboard chords, harmonic structures and vocal melodies. The case will go before a jury and is awaiting a court date.
Taking a few minutes to understand ownership rights for creative work can save you a lot of headaches and legal troubles in the long run. If you’re a film producer, photographer or musician, Shake’s legal templates can help clarify who owns what.