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This One's For You Mom

Posted by Matt on December 05, 2013         Tagged with: copyright

You know what looks really good on stamps? The Statue of Liberty. It looks so good on stamps that the US Postal Service has issued at least 20 different stamps featuring the famous statue. And now they're getting sued over one of them.

For their 2011 Statue of Liberty stamp, the USPS didn't have time to traipse all the way to New York City to take a picture themselves, so they just grabbed an image from a stock photography service. As it turns out though, the picture they chose wasn't of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. It was a picture of - oh god this is so embarassing - the much smaller replica that sits in front of the New York New York Casino in Las Vegas. To be fair, the picture, which you can see if you click through to the Times Colonist article, is a closeup of the statue's face, so it's probably not easy to tell the difference unless you really did your research.

The Bright Lights of New York in Vegas
Pictured: Not New York Harbor

Now Robert Davidson, the artist who created the replica statue, is suing the USPS for copyright infringement. This may sound odd to people who aren't copyright nerds, but a photo of the statue on a stamp is a copy of Davidson's original design. A much smaller copy, but a copy nonetheless. Davidson likely could have sued the photographer who took the photograph too, but the USPS probably has much deeper pockets, making them a more attractive target.

You might be saying "but that isn't an original design, it's just a replica of some long dead Frenchman's design". Which is a fair point, but it turns out the two statues differ in some important ways (besides location):

Attorneys for Robert Davidson argue in a suit filed last week that the Sin City statue was more "fresh-faced" and "sultry" than the original. They say these differences led the government to prefer Davidson's statue.
...
The two ladies do look unmistakably different. The Las Vegas sister has more stylish hair, and appears to be smirking slightly. Her crown also features a plaque, visible but not legible in the stamp, that reads, "This One's For You Mom."

You see? Davidson made his Statue of Liberty much sexier than the original, and it's on that basis that he's claiming copyright over the design.

My bet is this case settles. Incidentally, this lawsuit would probably never get off the ground here in Canada, because of an an exception in Canadian copyright law that says that producing pictures of sculptures which are permanently situated in public places is not an infringement of copyright.