Who owns public art illegally placed onto private buildings? That’s a question that came up recently after a famous Banksy work in London was ripped out of the side of a building, shipped across the Atlantic, and put up for auction with an estimated final price of over half a million dollars.
The legal battle between photographer Mike Hipple and sculptor Jack Mackie over a photo of Mackie’s public art piece “Dance Steps on Broadway” has ended with Hipple paying a settlement out of court. Mackie writes,
Anyone can make photographs of any public art and do most anything they want with the photograph. Private photos are most likely not infringements. People can frame them and give them to their uncles and aunts as gifts, they can post them on their facebook pages, or they can make Valentines with them and give them away. What they can not do, and this was the basis for the lawsuit, is offer to commercially sell them, which Mr. Hipple did, at least twice.
[...] The legal issues surrounding this case have always been clear and obvious. Instead of acceding to the clarity of the law, Mr. Hipple attempted numerous defenses. Mr. Hipple pleaded that because my art work is popular I should no longer be allowed to hold copyright. Tell that to Walt Disney. Mr. Hipple pleaded that one can not copyright public art. Tell that to the US Registrar of Copyrights. Mr. Hipple claimed that my art work is “instructional” and that his photograph “depicts dancing.” Taking him up on this argument we produced an image of his photograph containing my Dance Steps juxtaposed to an image of his carefully posed shoe model on a blank sidewalk [shown above]. Does his image without the Steps “depict dancing?” You decide.
Our initial post on this case in early 2010 sparked quite a bit of debate in the comments, with plenty of people arguing both sides.
In February 2008, Seattle-based photographer Mike Hipple received a letter from the lawyers of sculptor Jack Mackie that one of his stock photographs infringed upon Mackie’s copyright. Shown above, the photograph includes a portion of Mackie’s “Dance Steps on Broadway”, a public art piece created in 1979 with public funds.
Though the stock agency complied immediately with Mackie’s demands by removing the image and providing a settlement, Mackie is now suing Hipple for “copyright infringement and claiming the full measure of statutory damages, possibly $60,000 or more.” On the blog Hipple set up to collect defense fund donations, he states,
Now if this doesn’t qualify as fair use of the sculpture, I don’t know what does. “Fair Use” is a legal concept that allows a certain amount of copying of someone else’s work—you can get a fuller idea of how it works at the Stanford Fair Use Project website.
Think of it this way: if Mr. Mackie is correct and this isn’t fair use, then he can file a $60,000 law suit against anyone who, when strolling along Capitol Hill, thinks the dance steps are nice and takes a photo or video. He may not find you if you just leave the image on your camera or computer, but as soon as you post it to Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc., he can (and apparently will) sue you.
What do you think? Is this a case of copyright infringement or fair use?
(via A Photo Editor)
Image credit: Photo by Mike Hipple. Screenshot from Motion to Dismiss on Photo Attorney