Between 2011 and 2014, the United States Postal Service (USPS) used an image of the Statue of Liberty for its Forever Stamp series (a type of First Class postage stamp). Unfortunately for the USPS, the image they chose was not actually of the famous statue that towers over New York Harbor designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi in 1886. Instead, the image they chose was actually Robert S. Davidson’s replica Statue of Liberty which looks over the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Davidson sued for – and won – nearly $3.5 (£2.6) million in royalties, plus interest.
As reported by Artsy, an eagle eyed stamp collector identified the mix-up in 2011. The USPS was made aware of the goof in 2013, but went on to print another 1.13 billion stamps with the replica’s image. For context, the judgement cited that the USPS made some $70 million in revenue resulting from sales of this Lady Liberty stamp alone.
The Post Office purchased the photo used on the stamp from the image service Getty for $1,500 (£1,140). However, the license only covered the rights to Getty’s photograph of the statue — and not the statue itself. The USPS neglected to seek permission from Davidson, likely because they simply assumed what it was using was in the public domain.
In its defense, the USPS asserted that the statue is a replica and accordingly, contains no truly original work. If true, this would render Davidson’s copyright claim invalid, and the government would owe nothing for its use of the replica statue’s image.
Davidson was therefore tasked with proving that his copyright in the statue was valid, which under US law requires only a showing of “some minimal degree of creativity” and that it was his own “independent creation” of those original elements.
By way of reminder, the focus is on the expression of an original idea and not the idea itself (Oracle Am., Inc. v. Google Inc., 2014). As such, Davidson’s statue did not need to be wholly original, but rather a “new and original expression” of some previous work or idea – namely, the famous Bartholdi statue.
Davidson argued in his lawsuit that he wasn’t trying to create a replica of the original, but rather to craft a fresher, more feminine version. As was later quoted in the ruling, he “envisioned his mother-in-law as inspiration … and viewed her picture every night during the construction of the face of the statue.”
The Court examined photographs and was satisfied that Davidson “succeeded in making the statue his own creation, particularly the face. A comparison of the two faces unmistakably shows that they are different.” Ultimately, the Court agreed that Davidson’s statue “evokes a softer and more feminine appeal. The eyes are different, the jaw line is less massive and the whole face is more rounded. “
The USPS’s defense that the stamp fell under the fair use exemption was rejected by the Court. As the USPS printed “billions of copies and selling them to the public as part of a business enterprise … so overwhelmingly favors a finding of infringement that no fair use can be found.”
In case you’re wondering how the USPS – which is a US government agency – can be successfully sued for copyright infringement, 28 U.S.C. § 1498(b) waives sovereign immunity for claims of copyright infringement against the federal government “for the recovery of his reasonable and entire compensation as damages for such infringement.”