A few weeks ago there was news that Jay Maisel had successfully defended his copyright against someone claiming “transformation” by turning his original Miles Davis cover photograph into pixel art. It was another victory for photographers in the fight over “fair use,” an idea that is very important but also extensively misused by people who don’t understand it. Millionaire internet entrepreneur Andy Baio and stockbroker Andrew Peterson (AKA Thomas Hawk), of San Francisco investment company Stone & Youngberg, are a couple of those people. Andy made a chiptune tribute to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue called Kind of Bloop and he used Jay’s cover image to create his own to go with it. Maisel sued and Baio settled instead of going to court to “cut his losses.” He wrote a post on his popular blog waxy.org entitled Kind Of Screwed, where he tries to explain how his cover art would qualify for fair use.
I’m going to pick apart Andy’s argument, but first I need to mention that the post got the internet all worked up over copyright and Jay Maisel’s name has been drug through the mud by people like Andrew Peterson (AKA Thomas Hawk) “Photographer Jay Maisel Extorts (Opinion) $32,500 Out of Andy Baio” and Hyperallergic “Breaking: Millionaire Extorts $$$ From Artist, Street Artists Strike Back.” The Russian photos blog has an excellent wrap up of the disgusting antics “The Photographer, The Entrepreneur, The Stockbroker And Their Rent-A-Mob” followed by Doug Menuez “SLANDER, STUPIDITY & THE MINDLESS MOB ATTACKS ON JAY MAISEL”
By far the best and most recent explanation of how fair use is interpreted by the courts can be found in the filing by Judge Deborah A. Batts in Patrick Cariou’s successful lawsuit against Richard Prince that I wrote about (here).
The 4 factors that make up fair use are:
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
i. Transformative Use
iii. Bad Faith
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Note: Only a court can determine fair use.
Reading what Andy Baio has to say about his cover art, he claims the transformation is the most important part of what he’s done, but fails to recognize that “the purpose and character of the use” includes transformation but also commerciality and bad faith. The cover was commercial so that rules out the obvious nonprofit educational use of copyrighted work. Then there’s the bad faith element which asks if they tried to obtain permission or a license in the first place. Evidently there was some bad faith involved, because Andy called Jay’s office but did not ask to use or license the image. Finally, the courts say a transformation must comment on the original and not simply use it as source material. Additionally, making a derivative work is not the same as transforming, so simply recasting it is not enough. So how did he transform the image? He claims that by using NES-style pixel art to capture the artistic essence of the original album cover with “a fraction of the resolution and color depth of an analog photograph” he transformed it. Here’s how Judge Batts would respond “If an infringement of copyrightable expression could be justified as fair use solely on the basis of the infringer’s claim to a higher or different artistic use . . . there would be no practicable boundary to the fair use defense.” Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d at 310.
The final 3 factors are where Andy’s argument goes completely off the tracks. He says that Jay’s image “is creative, it’s also primarily documentary in nature” to which Judge Batts would say “it has been a matter of settled law for well over one hundred years that creative photographs are worthy of copyright protection even when they depict real people and natural environments. He used the entire image. And, finally he says that “It’s obvious the illustration isn’t a market substitute for the original” but Judge Batts would say “the Second Circuit has previously emphasized, the ‘potential market’ for the copyrighted work and its derivatives must be examined, even if the ‘author has disavowed any intention to publish them during his lifetime,’ given that an author ‘has the right to change his mind’ and is ‘entitled to protect his opportunity to sell his [works].’”
Yes, Andy you would have been screwed in court as well and given photographers another case to cite when protecting their copyright. The crazy thing about the whole debacle is that he licensed all the cover songs from Miles Davis’s publisher but didn’t do the same with the image. He didn’t think he would have any issues copying the images. That’s because you don’t mess with the music industry when it comes to copyright, now maybe the same will be said to photographers thanks to Jay Maisel.
UPDATE: Andy Baio and Jeremy Nicholl (Russian Photos Blog) weigh in on the comments of a TOP post (here).