What do Shepard Fairey, NBCUniversal, Bobby Solomon, Target, Disney, and Modern Dog Design Co. have in common? Design-theft.
Having recently graduated from CalArts, I have reached the threshold of the professional world, and perhaps the “real” world as well. Recently, the issues of copyright, ownership, and legality have been crossing my path… a lot. When I might have traded typefaces during school, now I am searching for their licensees. When I might have just scanned an old Nat Geo or some Goodwill thrift treasure for an assignment, now I have to be a lot more resourceful with how I construct an image for commercial freelance. These realizations are hard to get used to, but are not at all shocking.
There’s that one designer folk legend: you can use copyrighted material if it’s altered xx%… right? Well the U.S. Copyright Office will tell you, fair use is not quite that simple . Remember the Shepard Fairey controversy surrounding his Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster? He used an Associated Press owned photo taken by Mannie Garcia as basis for his illustration; when accused, he defended this action under fair use laws. The situation escalated when he was caught destroying/fabricating evidence during the lawsuit. Earlier this month, Fairey was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and paying a $25,000 federal fine; not to mention he’s on probation for two years . While these may be penalties for criminal contempt, my point is that this all began with simply referencing a photograph!
Meanwhile, “NBCUniversal was sued for $3.5 Million over font theft…again [...] For a third time is as many years, NBCU is facing claims of breaching copyrighted font software. This time, the plaintiff says the stolen font is all over NBCU’s websites.” . A figure at the forefront of the story is Frank Martinez, a Brooklyn-based lawyer who has actually built his career off of cases like font-theft!
“On behalf of various font designers, Martinez has previously filed separate multi-million dollar claims against CNBC, Universal Studios, and TNT for allegedly stealing fonts on products ranging from Harry Potter merchandise to Falling Skies screen credits.”
–Hollywood Reporter 
On a sunday this past july, Bobby Solomon, who runs thefoxisblack.com, received a tweet that simply said “@thefoxisblack looks like NBC is jacking your jawn pic.twitter.com/8mnN0AdM” . The black fox logo for his ‘thefoxisblack’ project/blog was spotted in Wired magazine… in an advertisement for a new NBC show! It is one of six icons for different survival tips, specifically the term “wolf saliva”.
In response, Solomon stated “potentially over 800,000 people now equate a brand I’ve been building for the last 5 years to ‘wolf saliva.’ Awesome.” . It turned out that Wired’s in-house team created the ad, and have since reached out to Solomon about the situation. (read more)
BIG BUSINESS vs. the Graphic Desinger
Modern Dog Design Co.
But why I really wanted to discuss this subject at all was because of Modern Dog Design Co. They a VERY small studio based out of Seattle Washington, founded by Robynne Raye and Michael Strassburger in 1987; and if you haven’t seen their work already, check out their website or monograph! I had the pleasure of interning there last summer alongside some of the kindest and coolest, and not to mention, seriously-talented people. They’ve always been highly active within AIGA as well as non-design related organizations and the greater Seattle area community in general .
They are currently in the process of suing divisions of both Disney and Target “for [allegedly] copying work from their 2008 monograph” . Here’s the work in question:
After a year of trying to settle, the case is going to trial. To point out the significance of this, that’s a 3-5 PERSON STUDIO TAKING ON TWO HUGE INTERNATIONAL CORPORATIONS! You could imagine the kind of force Modern Dog is going up against, keeping in mind the kinds of resources that these corporations can afford.
“‘Copyright law should be for everyone, not just those who can afford to litigate.’ [...] copyright only works if you are willing and able to protect it. Like a lot of small businesses, we don’t operate with a reserve account for emergencies. And it’s not possible to apply for a lawsuit loan (well, I guess you could try but I think the loan officer would laugh you out of the bank). So unless you have a rich uncle, you are on your own.” – Modern Dog 
They have set up a fundraising site for their cause called FRIENDS OF MODERN DOG. This fight is very real, but it’s also symbolic gesture to anyone who has or will establish a design studio. They are not only defending their studio’s name, but the archetypal designer-slash-business-owner as well. I could only donate $10, but even that will help as these trials can sometimes cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Modern Dog has also generously stated that any of the donations not used in the trial will go to the American Institute of Graphic Arts: Link Program (thelinkprogram.org) and the McKee Project (mckeeproject.org). I mean, come on, they’re awesome designers AND bona fide altruists!
So I’m calling all kindred-spirits to help them out by donating or even just passing along their link! Whatever you’re able to do! In school-world, it is a little easier to overlook some of these issues of ownership. However, this a increasingly-reoccurring theme in the design world, and one that has begun to strike very close to home! Tiffanie Tran pretty much sums it all up perfectly on the bottom her website:
“You steal and you suck.”
Read Robynne’s article about the work in question (via Rock Paper Ink)
Read Christopher Simmons’ (C.C.A.) article on the fundraiser.
Read Bobby Solomon’s article about his ripped logo.
Get to know fair use laws !!
Fairey and Cezanne photos obtained through Google images.
ps. I definitely appreciate the irony of staying up working on research papers post-school… -L