The Forever Stamp
Artist Robert S. Davidson, charged that the government mistakenly used a photograph of his Las Vegas sculpture of Lady Liberty for a stamp without permission.
The Post Office licensed a photo of Davidson’s statue from the image service Getty for $1,500, initially believing it was a photograph of the original statue. (The license only covered the rights to Getty’s photograph of the statue—not the statue itself.)
The stamp was printed roughly 3.5 billion times before a collector noticed the mistake in 2011. The USPS, after being alerted to the mistake, noted the stamp was hugely popular and even printed an additional 1.13 billion.
Was there a Copyright?
The issue of copyright has become increasingly more important in the art world. The consequences are huge, either money damages (royalties), or a court order to stop the use and the sale of the object. So, what does Copyright Law mean? A short summary below.
The elements to determine if a work violated Copyright Law are:
An Original Work?
At issue was whether Davidson’s version of the Statue of Liberty is an original work, and therefore subject to copyright infringement protections, or a straightforward replica.
In The Public Domain?
The original Statue of Liberty, created over 130 years ago, is in the public domain, meaning it can be photographed and replicated freely by anyone. Identical replicas of public domain works do not receive copyright infringement protections, either.
“The government argued that even if the Las Vegas statue is copyrightable, its use on the stamp is permitted through a fair use defense. Determining whether something qualifies as fair use is a fact-based inquiry.
The originality of the copyrighted work, in this case the Las Vegas statue, is an important factor in determining fair use. The less original the copyright piece, the thinner the protections it enjoys.” (artsy.net)
What’s the Difference?
The artist claimed that elements of the statue’s face stemmed not from the original but from “certain facial features of his close female relatives.” Changes include a “fuller chin; a rounded jawline and neck; a softer and wider mouth in relation to the nose; lifted corners of the mouth to create a friendlier expression.”
What’s the Harm? Royalties
Because the USPS mistakenly used an image of Davidson’s work and not the actual Statue of Liberty, it owes the artist royalties in the amount of $3,554,946.95 in royalties, plus interest.