A Complete Rip?



If your work shows up on a product sold by somebody else, what do you do? First, call a lawyer, duh. And do not sign anything that anyone puts in front of you until you do.

-ATTORNEYSCOTT ([email protected]).



Memoirs.com has clearly taken the very cool work of Kyle Theobald (http://www.creativecenter.edu/portfolios/Theobald_Kyle/) and made shirts that they’re selling online. See below for the obvious copying.


Completely Illegal!

Original Work by Theobald:


Memoirs.com Copy:

When a Line Becomes a Squiggle – Derivative vs. Transformative



One area of copyright law just about everybody gets mixed up is the weird overlap between “transformative use” and “derivative works.” This one is a bit complicated, so let’s start at the beginning, with our ol’ pal the Copyright Act.

The Copyright Act protects artists by giving them a bunch of exclusive rights in the works they create. See 17 USC 106. Most of them are obvious – such as you can’t sell products with my art on them without my permission; but some of them are not – such as you can’t create a work based on my work without my permission. The first right (i.e., the distribution right) is easy to untangle. The second right (i.e., the derivative work right) is not.

Consider the Prince. In Cariou v. Prince, a a photographer sued an “appropriation” artist who basically printed a couple of dozen of the photographer’s photos and then and doodled over them with some blue paint. After doing so, he was all like, “Hey, I created a new work.” He got sued, and the district court said, “No chance, you created an unlawful derivative work.”

Amazingly, though, the appeals court reversed the district court, finding that most of the doodled-on photographs were protected by the “fair use” doctrine because they represented a “transformative” (read: greatly changed) use. This ruling was most likely wrong, and has been heavily criticized. It’s wrong because it is pretty clear that the doodled-on photographs were derivative of the photographs and thus violative of the artist’s exclusive right to create derivative works from his own artwork.

But, it certainly underscores a tension between (a) the exclusive right of an artist to create new works based on their prior works, and (b) the lawful “transformative” use whereby a second person “transforms” an underlying work to create a “new” and legal work.

That tension is apparent in today’s submission. Are these works unlawful derivative works (because they are based on an underlying work) or are they lawful “transformative” works because so much new expression and value has been added?



An artist set up a Kickstarter to fund his sale of his knock-off art. He is trying to sell both clothing and prints bearing artwork that is copied from pre-existing work. He simply makes the straight lines squiggly and tries to pass it off others’ work as his own. His Kickstarter (now cancelled) shows the multiple copies. There are more where this came from, but below are .GIFs of some representative examples.

- Reader



What Happened at the Blurred Lines Trial and Why the Jury Got it Right and Why it Will Not Destroy the Music Industry


I was going to avoid commenting on the recent Blurred Lines decision because there was nothing all that extraordinary or incorrect about the ruling. But after reading the flood of recent posts and articles on the subject, almost all of which have been off-base, ignorant of the applicable law, and reactionary,  I thought I would write in an attempt to clarify a few things. I assume the reader is familiar with the matter, so I will not recite the basic facts of the case, or detail the result other than to say that the jury found Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke liable for copyright infringement, and awarded 7.4 million in damages to the Gaye estate. I will add the following:

It was a close case, there is no doubt about that. Did Williamz waltz right up to the line demarcating actionable copying of the expression of the Gaye song, or did he cross that line? This was for the jury decide, and the jury was given almost two weeks of evidence to consider. This brings me to the first problem with almost every recent article on the subject: they are written by people that did not review any of the evidence and certainly were not in attendance for any of the trial. I was in the courtroom for a portion of the trial, including to witness the testimony of the Gaye estate’s musicologist. She testified, very persuasively, that the signature phrase that forms the backbone of Blurred Lines was copied almost verbatim from the Gaye song. She also noted that the melisma (basically the way the word syllables combine with notes) in Blurred Lines appears to be taken wholesale from the Gaye song. When I left the courtroom that day, just about everyone else in attendance was convinced that infringement had taken place. I was more skeptical than most, but still felt that it was more likely than not that infringement occurred.

Which brings me to my second point: far too many of the people writing articles and posts on this case have watched far too many episodes of Law & Order (which deals with criminal law cases) and seem to believe that the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard applies to civil cases, such as those for civil copyright infringement. This is wrong – “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the criminal law standard. The Gaye estate did not have to prove copying “beyond a reasonable doubt”; instead, they had to prove that it was more likely than not that copying occurred. This is a 51% standard, and the Gaye estate met that standard at trial.

Another issue that most people are getting wrong is the standard of similarity necessary to show infringement. These articles complain that the jury was wrong because the songs are “not identical.” But identicality is not the standard, as readers of this site know. The standard is “substantial similarity” – that a material portion of the Williams/Thicke song was taken from the Gaye song and recreated in a substantially similar manner. This is because copyright law is very literal, it protects the”right to copy.” If an infringer could pitch-shift or otherwise change someone else’s work in a non-substantial way and claim it as their own, copyright law would not work. Williams’ changes to the Gaye track did not allow him to escape liability for infringement.

Which brings us to materiality. Far too many articles are going Chicken Little and hollering that this case will ruin the music industry because people will start suing over the sound of a snare drum or the note “do” or “re” or “mi.”  This is hogwash. For a copyright case to be valid, the infringer has to have taken a material amount of expression. While this varies from case to case, it is not negligible or de minimis. Someone claiming infringement must show that a material amount of their work was taken, or their case will be tossed out of court well before it even gets to a jury trial. Even more, somebody who sues over a frivolous taking may be ordered to pay the other side’s attorneys’ fees for bringing such a case. This is exactly what happened in a recent case against Jay-Z over his use of the word “oh” in Run this Town.  (This case, it should be noted, was filed well before the Blurred Lines verdict.) The Judge in that matter ruled correctly that the “oh” was not material and on that basis threw that case the heck out of court. So, there is a line between an immaterial taking (legal) and a material taking (illegal). Most instances will not cross this line but when it is crossed, a finding of infringement is proper.

Other articles are livid over the fact that Thicke and Williams had to cough up all the money they made on the infringing song. This, too, is incorrect, as they each made more than 7 million off this song from sales and publishing alone, and are jointly and severally liable for these damages, meaning they will pay less than half of what they made selling and publishing the song (and note that most money is made from touring, and they both get to keep all of the money they made playing that song while touring). The number, while high, is not unreasonable here.

One final point that has been overlooked by most is that Williams admitted that he is unable to read or write music yet still spent less than an hour putting together Blurred Lines (Thicke said he spent no time on the music and just showed up to sing over Pharrell’s work). This minimal expenditure of times makes more sense if you take as true the fact that Williams started with Gaye’s song and modified it. It also makes the likelihood of copying more likely than not.

In the end, it was a close call, and the jury made a decision that is just and will hopefully encourage artists to either write their own music instead of replicating the work of others (which will lead to more new music, which is a good thing) or get in touch with the musician responsible for the work they want to use and work out a license (like Sam Smith recently did, albeit belatedly, with Tom Petty). That way, everybody wins (except the lawyers, which is also a good thing).

-AttorneyScott ([email protected])

Back to Posting – Update on Recent Art Law Trial involving Urban Outfitters


Greetings and apologies for the lack of recent posts. Your faithful counselor-at-law was not dilly-dallying, you can rest assured. In fact, ATTORNEYSCOTT and his team at his Venice law firm, Doniger / Burroughs, was busy enforcing a fabric designer’s rights against Urban Outfitters. You will be happy to hear that ATTORNEYSCOTT prevailed, with the jury finding Urban Outfitters to be a willful copyright infringer. You can read all the details here:


Oh, the Irony!



Today’s post comes with a side of delicious, delicious irony. It is has long been settled that ideas are not covered by copyright law and it is only the expression of an idea that qualifies for protection. No less an authority than the California Supreme Court, in Weitzenkorn v. Lesser, Cal., 256 P.2d 947, 955, noted that ideas “are as free as air[,]” which is very free indeed. It was way back in 1947 that Congress withdrew protection for “any product of the mind,” and proclaimed that from that point hence, only the expression of an idea would be protectable.

Which brings us to today’s installment, which pertains an original work created by an artist that references the notion espoused years ago by the California Supreme Court, and combines this reference with other original elements of artistry. Sadly, it appears that the entirety of the work may have been lifted by someone who mistook ideas for expression.

- AttorneyScott ([email protected])


This shop owner is using BelandKal artwork without permission on their laser etched products.
This is the artwork as depicted on the BelandKal website http://www.belandkal.com/feathers-in-the-wind/
and here are the links from thhe infringer:
And this is the infringer’s main website:

Here is the BelandKal piece:

And here is the rip-off:

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