Kind Of Blue: Using Copyright To Make Hobby Artist Pay Up

from the chilling-effects dept

A whole bunch of folks have been sending over Andy Baio's tragic story of having to pay $32,500 to photographer Jay Maisel for his use of an image, which he still believes was fair use. There are all sorts of interesting things to consider in this story, so let's break it down.


Hopefully you already know who Andy Baio is. An all around intriguing guy who runs the awesome blog, does fantastic web development, and has been involved with a few really interesting projects/companies, including Kickstarter and (which he sold to Yahoo a while back). I don't know Andy at all -- have never met or spoken to him -- but he's one of the folks out there that I've had a ton of respect for for many, many years.

One of the really fun projects that Andy did was to record an album called Kind of Bloop -- an 8-bit tribute to the classic Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue. Andy raised some money (via Kickstarter, of course), got together some "chiptune" musicians (who make 8-bit music, a la classic video games), and recorded and released the album. And, yes, he was careful to do all of the proper licensing for the music. He also gave any of the money that came in to the musicians, not taking a cut for himself.

The Problem:

All of that sounds good... and he was pretty surprised by the eventual mess he got into. For the cover, the obvious choice was to do an 8-bit rendering of the original Davis cover, and he, Andy, got a friend to put it together. You can see the original and the version for this album below:
It turns out that the original photo of Davis for the album was done by famed photographer Jay Maisel and Maisel believed the Kind of Bloop image violated his copyright. Andy argued, persuasively, that his use of the image was fair use. Maisel's lawyers disagreed, and threatened him with:
"either statutory damages up to $150,000 for each infringement at the jury's discretion and reasonable attorneys fees or actual damages and all profits attributed to the unlicensed use of his photograph, and $25,000 for Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violations."
Fair Use:

Andy makes a strong case for why this is fair use. If you focus on two key factors out of the four tests for fair use, I believe he has a very compelling case, but that won't surprise many people. Baio points out that his version is transformative:

From the beginning, Kind of Bloop was a creative experiment. I was drawn to the contradiction between the textured, subdued emotion in Kind of Blue and the cold, mechanical tones of retro videogame music. The challenge was to see whether chiptune artists could create something highly improvisational, warm, and beautiful from the limited palette of 1980s game consoles. (I think we succeeded.)

Similarly, the purpose of the album art was to engage both artist and viewer in the same exercise can NES-style pixel art capture the artistic essence of the original album cover, with a fraction of the resolution and color depth of an analog photograph?

It reinforced the artistic themes of the project, to convey the feel of an entire album reimagined through an 8-bit lens. Far from being a copy, the cover art comments on it and uses the photo in new ways to send a new message.

This kind of transformation is the foundation of fair use. In a 2006 verdict, the court found artist Jeff Koons' use of a fashion photo "adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message."

I don't think there's any question that Kind of Bloop's cover illustration does the same thing. Maisel disagreed.

Separately, he also notes that on the other key test, the impact on the market, this is likely fair use: "It's obvious the illustration isn't a market substitute for the original: it's a low-resolution artistic rendering in the style of 8-bit computer graphics that is, at best, of interest to a few computer enthusiasts."

I actually think that he also could have argued that this isn't even a fair use question, since many of the elements of the original photo that are copyrightable are actually removed in the 8-bit version, leading to some questions as to whether or not there's even a violation of the copyright at all.

The Outcome: Cheaper to Settle than to Fight:

As is often the case when someone is threatened with the potential of having to pay huge fines after an expensive, lengthy and exhausting trial, it's easier (and sometimes cheaper) to just settle. And that's what Andy did. He agreed to pay $32,500 to Maisel, taking what had been a fun side-project, for which he earned no money, and turning it into something quite costly and astoundingly frustrating. Andy is quite clear that in settling he did not (and will not) admit to any guilt, as he still believes that his use was legal:
After seven months of legal wrangling, we reached a settlement. Last September, I paid Maisel a sum of $32,500 and I'm unable to use the artwork again. (On the plus side, if you have a copy, it's now a collector's item!) I'm not exactly thrilled with this outcome, but I'm relieved it's over.

But this is important: the fact that I settled is not an admission of guilt. My lawyers and I firmly believe that the pixel art is "fair use" and Maisel and his counsel firmly disagree. I settled for one reason: this was the least expensive option available.

At the heart of this settlement is a debate that's been going on for decades, playing out between artists and copyright holders in and out of the courts. In particular, I think this settlement raises some interesting issues about the state of copyright for anyone involved in digital reinterpretations of copyrighted works.
The real shame here is that it's the ridiculously high statutory rates that caused this settlement to occur in the first place. If the potential liability weren't so high, I wouldn't be surprised to see Andy be willing to fight for what he believed was right. But with such a threat hanging over him, it's understandable why he settled. It also explains why so many people abuse copyright law this way. Since it's so often cheaper to settle... many people do, even if they believe they haven't infringed on anyone's copyrights.

Chilling Effects:

If you can't see how this is an example of the massive chilling effects of copyright law today, you're not paying very close attention. Andy had a very strong argument to explain how what he did was legal... and still agreed to pay $32,500 for a fun little side project he was making no money on. He was chilled into paying up, because the fight is just too expensive. And the chilling effects are nefarious and ongoing:
It breaks my heart that a project I did for fun, on the side, and out of pure love and dedication to the source material ended up costing me so much emotionally and financially. For me, the chilling effect is palpably real. I've felt irrationally skittish about publishing almost anything since this happened. But the right to discuss the case publicly was one concession I demanded, and I felt obligated to use it. I wish more people did the same maybe we wouldn't all feel so alone.
Create some artwork out of love and appreciation... end up getting threatened with a massive lawsuit and having to pay up, even though you believe what you did was perfectly legal. That's not what copyright law is supposed to be about.

The Backlash:

After Andy published his story, lots of folks picked up on it, and most of the commentary focused on Jay Maisel. There were articles and tweets calling him all sorts of names. Maisel ended up shutting down his Facebook page entirely. Andy, for his part, has urged people not to attack Maisel, and has made it clear that people shouldn't take this out on him. However, I think it's not at all surprising that this was the end result. We've seen this before. If you're seen as a bully, abusing copyright law for things it's not intended for, you shouldn't be surprised if there's backlash. I certainly don't condone the harassment of Maisel, but I can't see how anyone (least of all Maisel) should be surprised that it happened.

It does kind of make you wonder if the $32,500 was "worth it" to have your reputation dragged through the mud.

There were all sorts of smarter ways that Maisel could have handled this situation, but he chose to go the legal route.

Find the Line:

As a parting shot, Andy posted the following graphic, and asked where would people draw the line? What's fair use? What's infringing? A better question might be why should that even be a point of discussion at all? We have a case where something unique, new and creative was done... and was then stifled for no good reason. Nothing in what Andy did took away from Maisel's work at all. He suffered no losses. This is a shame of epic proportions, and yet another in a long list of examples of how copyright is used to censor, rather than to promote progress. The whole thing should make us all feel kind of blue...

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2011 @ 10:12am

    Re: Re:

    He didn't turn it into something different. It's obviously still the same picture, just pixelated.

    You people are the worst...

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