5 famous copyright infringement cases (and what you can learn)

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Copyright has never been an easy, black-and-white kind of issue. Arguments over copyright between creatives happen all of the time, it’s an inescapable issue.

Read through some of these famous court cases that have created major public discourse over copyright — how it’s handled, what it means, and why we should all care.

1. Rogers vs. Koons

copyright infringement

Photograph: Art Rogers – 1985; Polychrome: Jeff Koons – 1988  (both via The Design Observer Group)

Case

Photographer Art Rogers shot a photograph of a couple holding a line of puppies in a row and sold it for use in greeting cards and similar products. Internationally, renowned artist Jeff Koons in the process of creating an exhibit on the banality of everyday items, ran across Rodgers’ photograph and used it to create a set of statues based on the image. Koons sold several of these structures, making a significant profit. Upon discovering the copy, Rodgers sued Koons for copyright. Koons responded by claiming fair use by parody.

Outcome

The court found the similarities between the 2 images too close, and that a “typical person” would be able to recognize the copy. Koon’s defense was rejected under the argument that he could have used a more generic source to make the same statement — without copying Rogers’ work. Koons was forced to pay a monetary settlement to Rodgers.

Significance

This is one of those famous cases that encompassed a larger issue in the art world, the issue of appropriation art. Can you build upon another’s work to create your own original piece? And if you do so, does that constitute derivative work? It also brought up the issue of photography as art, was photography just a documentation of the world, or is it a creative and artistic product? Neither of these issues was entirely answered by the case, of course, but it has also become a reference used in many cases afterward.

You can parallel this with vector-tracing a photograph for your design. Are you creating a derivative work that subtracts value from the original artist?

2. The Associated Press vs. Fairey

copyright infringement

Photograph: Mannie Garcia – 2006 (via The New York Times); Poster: Shephard Fairey – 2008 (via Wikipedia)

Case

Famous street artist Shephard Fairey created the Hope poster during President Obama’s first run for presidential election in 2008. The design rapidly became a symbol for Obama’s campaign, technically independent of the campaign but with its approval. In January 2009, the photograph on which Fairey allegedly based the design was revealed by the Associated Press as one shot by AP freelancer Mannie Garcia — with the AP demanding compensation for its use in Fairey’s work. Fairey responded with the defense of fair use, claiming his work didn’t reduce the value of the original photograph.

Outcome

The artist and the AP press came to a private settlement in January 2011, part of which included a split in the profits for the work.

Significance

Though there wasn’t a court case and an actual verdict, this case created a lot of discourse around the value of work in these copyright battles. It’s unlikely that Garcia’s work could have ever reached the level of fame it did, if not for Fairey’s poster. Garcia himself stated he was “so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it has had,” but still had a problem with the fact that Fairey took the image without permission and without credit for it’s originator.

Credit, credit, credit! On 99designs you cannot use licensed work — but in the right circumstances you can use stock imagery. When doing so, make sure everyone knows the source.

3. Cariou vs. Prince

copyright infringement

Photograph: Patrick Cariou – 2000; Adaptation: Richard Prince – 2008 (both via artnet)

Case

Richard Prince is a well known appropriation artist — one who transforms the work of others to create new meaning in his own work. For an exhibition in the Gagosian Gallery, Prince appropriated 41 images from a photography book by French photographer Patrick Cariou, claiming fair use that he created new meaning out of the photographs. Cariou argued that it wasn’t fair use, but copyright infringement.

Outcome

A judge ruled in favor for Cariou in 2011, claiming the changes made to Cariou’s photographs weren’t significant enough to constitute a change in meaning — fair use. However, the case is currently in appeal and the final decision has not yet been reached.

Significance

The initial ruling in this case in favor of Cariou has created huge divisions in the artistic community. It brings up questions about artistic intent and the subjectivity of art, asking “who was this judge to determine whether or not the appropriated artwork had enough meaning to be considered fair use” when the art could be interpreted differently by each person who viewed it. The jury is still out on this one.

Imitation vs. inspiration

Don’t be a designer who creates work too close to that of another. You have to make sure you are creating something original and not derivative.

Update 4/25/2013

Not two weeks after this article was published, the original decision in this case was overturned and the judge ruled in favor of Prince for the majority of the works in dispute, claiming that Prince’s work transformed the work in the way that it was aesthetically different, and thus acceptable under the argument of fair use. Read more about the decision as well as the 5 pieces which are still under review by a lower court in The New York Times and Hyperallergic.

4. Modern Dog Design vs. Target Corporation

copyright infringement

Illustrations: Modern Dog – 2008; T-shirt: Target (both via Business Insider)

Case

Seattle design firm Modern Dog utilized a series of sketches of dogs in their compendium put out by Chronicle Books in 2008. The firm alleges that illustrations from that design have been used in a T-shirt produced by Disney/Target for sale, and filed a lawsuit in 2011.

Outcome

TBD. There hasn’t been a decision yet in this case but Modern Dog has been campaigning online pretty heavily for publicity and funds to help with its legal fees over the issue.

Significance

The Modern Dog case has brought to light a question burning in the mind of many designers and artists — what happens if a major corporation with many more resources than me, utilizes my artwork for profit? Modern Dog was recently forced to sell their studio to cover the legal costs associated with this battle, so it’s turning into a very extreme situation for them. We’ll have to keep an eye out for how this progressed and continues to change the conversation around this issue.

Always defend your designs. Regardless of who you’re going up against — if you think your design is in the right, then make it known.

5. Vanilla Ice vs. David Bowie/Freddie Mercury

Video: DF Bothma (via YouTube)

Case

Vanilla Ice had a hit, in 1991, with Ice Ice Baby — it sampled but did not credit the song Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. Though at first denying it, Vanilla Ice later retracted the statement saying it was “a joke”. Facing a lawsuit by the duo, Vanilla Ice fessed to sampling the work.

Outcome

The case was settled privately out of court with Ice paying an undeclared sum of money and crediting Bowie/Queen on the track.

Significance

There’s really not a ton of meaning directly related to design with this one (except for, don’t use other people’s creative work!). But I couldn’t resist adding it. This is one of the most hilarious copyright cases ever.

There are more cases out there! Any you have learned from?

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Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

  • fd

    this is poo

  • hi

    hi

  • jada

    thanks for sharing. and the tips!!! :)

    • Pail KirkStamptrick

      I will give you my tip

  • Anymous

    Nice, really helped me a lot. sometimes i even find it funny people who get over dramatic because someone did somthing to THEIR picture and made it there own in a sort of way

    • Mandla Vilakazi

      I don’t think it’s funny when someone steals someone else’s work

      • dont worry about it

        I think it’s funny… lol…

      • Pail KirkStamptrick

        Is it your time of the month? why you gotta be so mad?

    • APersonWhoDoesntLikeThis

      How is it funny???
      When you take a picture from someone else, is that not still stealing? Even if you technically change the original meaning of the work, is it still not stealing if any of the original is still there?
      Frankly, I’m disgusted by you laughing at a matter like this. I’m a hobby photographer. Do my pictures not count as art?

      • crabbyoldartist

        Your pictures are art and copying is stealing. Period.

        • MychaelDarklighter

          But it’s not just “period”, that’s the entire point of the article and the cases that make up its subject. You’re dismissing the entire concept of appropriation out of hand, and both I and most of the judges above disagree with you.

      • Jacob Nordloh

        no offense to you sir but, no. they do not. i mean if i take a picture of something that is just standing on a rock and add detail shouldn’t count as art. art is something you put meaning into, not something that take 30 seconds. i frankly am an artist and I’m not entirely thrilled with stealing however something that isn’t worked on with heart on content is not art.

    • sharkisha

      yeah, you’re sick

      • james draske

        i love sick it tastes goood

        • james draske

          i love james draske

          • james draske

            me too

          • james draske

            me three

          • james draske

            me four

          • Pail KirkStamptrick

            me five

          • Pail KirkStamptrick

            mmmm sicky

    • Worship Dancer

      i guess we know that you have no problem stealing other people’s work – pictures, music, ideas, etc.

  • johan franzen

    thabnks babe

    • sharkisha

      you’re welcome boo

      • Pail KirkStamptrick

        No problem hunnie

        • james draske

          no problem sugarlump

    • Babe

      No problem

      • blobies

        I FEEL THE LOVE

  • johan franzen

    Thanks babe

  • RAboo

    hi

  • vanilla ice

    hahahahahaha it’s funny

  • Guest

    hi guys

  • Guest

    how ya doin

  • vanilla ice

    ssss

  • vanilla ice

    sss

  • palemani

    I think copying is good ok……

    • Mr Paul Balls

      listen mate, you really are nob jockey

    • Pail KirkStamptrick

      Look here pal, you are a twat that needs to learn when to comment and when not too

  • ksfkay

    These cases should not have eluded to the idea that designers shouldn’t create work that is too close to that of another, or that one should be creating something original and not derivative. While applauding originality and uniqueness, a designer’s role is also a voice to be heard as a critical expression allowed by law.

    I would also see fit that these 5 cases could not paint an full picture for designers to based their ideas on. Especially since Modern Dog vs Target Corp. is still being discussed, and others were settled outside court.

  • leslieconway

    In these days, the Insurance is as essential as copy rights . it is important for our vehicles also. Due to this we can easily cover the loss which we faced due to unfortunately happened situations.

    Koon
    Legal

  • Mr Paul Balls

    I think this topic is really quite controversial. Really, I personally think more needs to done about the prosecution of the perpetrators, and i will defiantly be taking this matter up with my “man in charge”, if you know what i mean.

  • Tawny Evergreen

    I think it’s fine as long as they credit you for the picture. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”… I would be happy to know that people want to use my work as long as they don’t take credit and don’t sell it or anything without permission

  • Annmarie Topel

    I found my photo as a kid being used by Hallmark on a Shoebox card. It was taken by a family member and not sold NOR was consent given. It is a picture from 1964. Do I have a case? I do not want it being used.

    • b

      can you prove it

    • james draske

      no

      • james draske

        yes

        • james draske

          no

          • james draske

            yes

    • Pail KirkStamptrick

      Cry more. please, come back with a real case

  • sergioo

    how long did the case take to get results ?s

  • Eric Carpentier

    You have to be careful those days since there is new services that will see if someone is using your picture and will still track if it has been altered. They will also take care of requesting credit/license $$ for the owner or even send a take-down notice.

    Check this out:

    http://www.copypants.com/?utm_campaign=rr-forum-1&utm_source=referral&utm_medium=frm

  • lalal

    Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life!!

    • EWW

      No fuck that shit

  • Carlos Ira

    Rogers article: there is a mistake in the spelling of rogers name in the fourth line.

  • Korel Gatt

    I’d like to inform you that a certain youtube video (https://youtu.be/A5MGGuRmN5o) is using parts of this article without giving you any credit. Do with that information as you please.

    • L0wC

      The irony is that fair use says he can use the article for this purpose. But that’s only if everything he says about fair use is wrong, which it is.

      • assburger

        so going by what he believes, he isn’t allowed to use 99designs in his video
        I hope one day he realizes how fucking untalented and retarded he is and kills himself

        • L0wC

          He’s an idiot, but I wouldn’t go that far.

    • assburger

      “u cant monetize other people things REMEMBER THAT”
      and then he goes ahead and shills his stupid fucking movie

      he’s such a fucking retard

  • Christopher

    Fak U Derek Savage

  • https://torguard.net/aff.php?aff=097 thisguy1337

    There’s a new podcast presented by TorrentFreak in which you can listen to discussions of the latest copyright related & file-sharing news stories. There’s some really crazy stuff that news agencies simply don’t report…
    http://stealthisshow.com

  • puppylover2121

    pictures are not art, art is stupid anyways like why would you care if someone took someone else’s trash and called it their trash. garbage is still garbage no matter who owns it.

  • Buttcheese Whatshisass

    Who came here from Derek Savage?

  • Mickey James

    IGNORANCE OF THE LAWL IS NOT AN EXCUSE

  • Always up for it!

    She is well fit.