Maggie Knooihuizen, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Spring 2015 Mass Communication Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the following essay in response to the prompt: In 2011, the US Post Office paid an amateur photographer $1,500 to use one of his photographs of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, which sold more than $17 million worth of stamps. The sculptor of the Memorial wants to sue the photographer and the US Post Office for copyright infringement. Will he win against the photographer? Against the US Post Office? What are the best counter arguments the US Post Office should make in defending the case?
Stamps? What are those again? Well apparently they are a $17 million dollar industry. Recently, the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was featured on stamps made by the U.S. Post Office. The post office paid a photographer to use one of his photos of the memorial, however they seemed to forget all about the poor sculptor. Someone might want to remind the U.S. Post Office of the copyright laws for works of visual arts.
Although this is a tough case, the sculptor of the memorial might have a real case on his hands. The moment a piece of art is created, the artist receives copyright of it. This means that the artist or owner of the piece is the only one who has exclusive rights to make or sell copies of it. Copyright laws protect the artist from many forms of infringement, one being: “greeting cards, postcards and stationery.”
Another aspect to this case is that the memorial is not yet considered “public domain”, which generally means the art was produced before 1923. The United States law states that, “if the [work of art] is in the public domain, you can take a picture of it, you can reproduce it.” So it is found that if the piece of art is recent, the artist has exclusive rights to any type of reproduction.
The U.S. Post Office cannot use and receive a profit from the stamps without compensating the sculptor. Yes, the U.S. Post Office paid the photographer who took the photo of the sculpture, but they did not take into account the other artist at play here. However, the photographer is protected by the same copyright laws for works of visual arts as the sculptor so he would not be sued in this situation.
Maggie is a senior at Pepperdine University majoring in public relations.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.