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Famous Copyright Infringement Cases and Lessons to Be Learned From Them

Most people know that you can’t simply take someone else’s work and claim it as your own. For most, it’s common knowledge that if you’re a musician or a writer, you can’t copy and paste from someone else’s piece and stamp your name on it. If you’re a photographer, you can’t take someone else’s photo and use it as your own. Of course, copyright cases are far more nuanced than that. The internet has only further increased some of the confusion about what is fair use and what isn’t. Every case is different and there is always something to be learned. We thought we’d take a look at some of the most famous cases of copyright infringement and their outcomes.

The Obama Hope Poster

You might remember the famous Hope poster for the Obama presidential campaign that surfaced in early 2008. The poster was not an official campaign image but it had the approval. It is a photograph of Barack Obama with a serious and determined look on his face but colored red white and blue—in a stencil style— and with the word Hope at the bottom. The design had a very hip, street style to it that made it a popular and instantly-iconic image of the young presidential candidate. But where did it come from?

Famous street artist Shephard Fairey (the man behind the Obey brand of clothing) created the design independent of the campaign. When the Associated Press caught wind of the fact that the photo used to inspire the design was taken by one of their freelance photographers, Mannie Garcia, they demanded compensation. Fairey replied with the fair use defense.

The outcome of the case? The Associated Press and the artist came to a private settlement, which included splitting profits.

Vanilla Ice Vs. Freddy Mercury/David Bowie

This is probably the quintessential copyright case, as it is widely known and widely referenced in the media. It practically labeled one of the artists as an infringement artist for the rest of his career. The classic 90s hit “Ice Ice Baby” made a big splash in the charts and became the quintessential 90s anthem, to a degree. It sampled but did not credit the song Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie. The most widely known aspects of the case are because the artist Vanilla Ice denied having sampled the work and famously denied that the track was the same. Once he faced a lawsuit, he came forward and confessed that it was, in fact, a sample.

What was the outcome? The case was settled out of court with Vanilla Ice having to credit Bowie and Mercury, as well as paying some sum of money—likely a hefty one.

Richard Ashcroft’s Bitter Sweet Symphony

The Verve’s 1997 hit, “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” is a song almost everyone knows by melody but perhaps not by name. This song that got a Best Song Grammy nomination and is the object of what some call an “unjust chapter” of music history. If you are not sure what song this is, you’ve likely heard it before as it was a hit in the late nineties and became a kind of inspirational anthem. The orchestral melody is quite catchy.

The song was written and recorded by the British band The Verve, but it contained a little sample that would cause the band to lose royalties on this very famous song for decades. This little sample was of an orchestral version of “The Last Time” by the Rolling Stones. The Verve had cleared the orchestral version by Decca Records but didn’t get permission for the underlying composition. The Stones’ late business manager, Allen Klein, took all the publishing rights to the song. A deal was eventually made to add Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the credits.

The outcome? In 2019, over 20 years since the song’s debut, both sides were able to finally negotiate and settle. The former manager’s son and the new Stones manager and The Verve settled an agreement and Richard Ashcroft, the lead mastermind behind The Verve, was finally able to receive the credit and royalties he deserved. The entire story about this particular copyright claim is, truly, bittersweet.

Photograph vs Statues in Rodgers vs. Koons

A photographer named Art Rodgers shot a photograph of a couple that is holding a row of puppies. The well-known artist Jeff Koons created an exhibit and used this photograph and created a set of statues of the photo’s content. Koons ended up making quite a bit of profit from the statues. The photographer sued Koons for copyright. Koons argued fair use by parody.

The outcome? Koons’ defense of fair use by parody was rejected. Koons was forced to pay Rodgers a monetary settlement.

Do Copyright Right and Protect Your Work

Copyright laws are there to protect creators. If you have created or invented something, think about protecting your work through copyright or trademark. This can ensure that you are in good standing and in a good position to win a fight if someone were to infringe on your intellectual property. Call Circle That R today for questions and guidance on getting your work protected.