Postal Service Could Be On The Hook For Millions For Daring To Memorialize The Korean War Memorial

A few years back, we wrote about how a sculptor who had been contracted by the US government to create the Korean War Memorial in Washington DC was suing the US Postal Service because it had released a stamp using a photograph of the Memorial. There were all sorts of issues with this, starting with the fact that the US government should never commission a monument in which it does not also get the copyright. Leaving it with the artist is ridiculous, because now we have a public memorial, which gets photographed a ton, and a single photographer artist has control over it? Why would the government allow this? The second problem was that this seemed like a classic case of fair use. The photo was clearly transformative from the original work, where most of the power of the photo is in other elements beyond the statue (the snow, the lighting, etc.). Unfortunately, however, the appeals court for the federal circuit (CAFC) made one of its all too typical bizarre rulings and decided that the photo was infringing. As we noted at the time, it rejected the transformative nature of the photo by claiming those were “nature’s choices,” which would effectively eliminate all nature photography from being covered by copyright.

That said, the case has continued, as the follow up fight was about how much the sculptor, Frank Gaylord, should get. The district court looked at typical licensing deals from the US Postal Service and realized they usually pay a couple thousand dollars. The highest amount it could find was $5,000, so they awarded him that. Gaylord appealed, asking for 10% of all revenue from the stamp, which he estimated would be around $3 million on the $30.2 million in revenue made already. That’s a pretty big difference. CAFC has once again sided with him saying that the lower court was wrong to just award him $5,000, without taking into consideration how much Gaylord might have wanted to license the work for in the first place. The lower court will now have to reconsider, and the US taxpayer may have to pay this guy a ton of money yet again.

So, can we convince the federal government of a rather simple idea going forward: if you have someone create a memorial or statue or piece of artwork for public display, part of the deal is they put the whole thing into the public domain. If they don’t like it, find another artist. The fact that this work is not in the public domain is a travesty. The fact that the photo is not considered fair use on the sculpture in the first place is a travesty. The fact that he may end up getting another batch of money for this is a travesty. And all of it could have been avoided if someone (anyone) in the US government realized ahead of time that artwork created for public display should belong to the public.

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