Fight For Your Creative Rights

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Fashion photographer, David LaChapelle, has sued pop star, Rihanna, based on claims stated in court documents that the “composition, total concept, feel, tone, mood, theme, colors, props, settings, decors, wardrobe, and lighting” were copied for her “S&M” video, directed by Melina Matsoukas. Many people have been weighing in on the potential lawsuit and the comments have a collective theme: where do you draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism?


Side-by-side comparison of Rihanna’s S&M video (left) to David LaChapelle’s work (right)

Chris Magee-Jenks, a graphic artist, had this to say, “There is a big difference between “inspiration” and blatant copying of a creative work. This goes beyond Rihanna and her team being “influenced” or “inspired” by LaChapelle’s work. They were trying to copy specific images.” Magee-Jenks continued, “When you directly copy another person’s creative work, that’s a copyright violation.”

Most artists rely on intellectual property (IP) laws to protect them from copyright infringements. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) defines IP as “creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce.” However, intellectual property laws can be very complicated.

In fact, even human genes are subject to patents. In a National Geographic News article, Fiona Murray, a business and science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge said, “It might come as a surprise to many people that in the U.S. patent system human DNA is treated like other natural chemical products.” Murray continued, “An isolated DNA sequence can be patented in the same manner that a new medicine, purified from a plant, could be patented if an inventor identifies a [new] application.”

As complicated as it may seem, intellectual property laws have been known to protect artists, inventors, and writers from unlicensed use of their ideas. Several artists, including Eminem and The White Stripes, have successfully stopped companies from unauthorized use of their music in advertisements by citing IP and copyright laws.

Chrysler commercial:  “Imported from Detroit” feat. Eminem. The commercial
debuted during the 2011 Super Bowl.

Audi A6 Avant commercial; Audi is being sued by Eminem for unlicensed use of his music
“Lose Yourself,” which was also featured in the “Imported from Detroit” commercial.

Unfortunately this isn’t an issue for just the famous and the wealthy. Large companies have been stealing images and ideas from blogs and sites, such as Flickr, for years. Most recently, photographer Chris Devers found out the Gap was mass-producing a photograph of his for children’s clothing. The photo, which was posted on Flickr, was published under a Creative Commons license requiring attribution, non-commercial use, and no derivative works. All the requirements for using that photograph were ignored by The Gap.

Original photograph shot by Chris Devers in Brighton, Massachusetts in 2009 ©Chris Devers

Clothing from The Gap featuring an altered version of Devers photo of a vintage Jaguar E-Type he photographed in 2009

“I have various thoughts about what’s going on here,” Devers said on his blog about The Gap’s unauthorized use of his photograph, “for example, the mind-boggling idea that some unknown factory in southeast Asia somewhere is cranking out thousands of $16.95 t-shirts with my photo on them on behalf of the Gap, and yet they never attempted to contact me about their use of my work.” Devers added, “but I’m trying to keep most of my thoughts to myself until Gap has a chance to respond.”

So in this digital age, how does one protect themselves from copyright infringement? Probably the easiest way for many artists who display their work through digital media to protect their rights is to follow Chris Devers lead and register their work through Creative Commons. The non-profit organization states on their website, “The Creative Commons copyright licenses and tools forge a balance inside the traditional “all rights reserved” setting that copyright law creates. Our tools give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.”

Travis Porter, an artist who’s been working in the Kansas City area for several years said that although all work is copyrighted at the moment of creation, not all work is protected equally.

“If a registered work is infringed, the creator can recover actual damages as well as statutory damages and legal fees.” Porter explained, “If an unregistered is infringed, the artist can only generate the actual damages. Unfortunately, for a lot of artists who haven’t registered their art, it means the suit will cost more than the money recovered.” Porter continued, “However you do it, the important thing is to protect yourself and your art, take the time to copyright your work.”­

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