When is a Banana Not a Banana?

When it’s a trademark.

On January 13, 1966, Andy Warhol pulled out all the stops for his debut of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of events featuring his films, and performances from Factory Super Stars. Performing at “Uptight” the opening event which took place at the New York Society of Clinical Psychiatry, a new band, The Velvet Underground were instantly made by the Warhol star-maker machinery.

Taking the band under his wing, Andy Warhol produced their first album pressed in 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico, for which he also created and signed the now famous banana graphic. Though the band broke up in 1972, Lou Reed and John Cale have, they say, continuously used this image in marketing and promotion for 25 years, most recently to promote a1989 re-union tour and record, Songs for Drella, which they made in tribute to Warhol.

Is this The Velvet Underground's trademark.

On Jan 11, 2012, The Velvet Underground filed a suit against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts (AWF), essentially the Warhol estate, accusing them of illegally leveraging copy rights to the image which they never registered officially, and of licensing it to third parties “in a manner likely to cause confusion or mistake as to the association of Velvet Underground with the goods sold in commerce by such third parties.”

Suggesting that, with so many graphics to choose from, The Andy Warhol Foundation can only be using the banana to capitalize on its association with The Velvet Underground, the band seeks an injunction against the AWF, to make them stop licensing the banana to third parties. They also demand a declaration that the Warhol Foundation has no copyright interest in the design, are demanding “unspecified damages”, and a share of the profits made by the Warhol Foundation from any licensing deals.

“The symbol has become so identified with The Velvet Underground … that members of the public, particularly those who listen to rock music, immediately recognize the banana design as the symbol of The Velvet Underground,” say the plaintiffs who are claiming a trademark on the image.

A pop-culture savvy friend of mine begs to differ. Social media consultant, Nichelle Stephens says, “There are two whole generations that would disagree. Gen Ys and Millennials don’t even think about album art anymore. They’d just think it’s a Warhol.

Also curious is the claim that the AWF have “no copyright interest” in the banana. Apparently the claim by Reed/Cale is that since Warhol never obtained a formal copyright got the graphic, and subsequently the AWF published the image many times, it is “in the public domain.”

Now, I’m left with many questions which I plan to answer in a follow up…

Doesn’t the artist own the copyright whether they registered it or not?
And doesn’t a copyright hold for the lifetime of the artist +75 years?
And wouldn’t that copyright go to the artist’s heirs, again, whether registered or not?
And if the heirs were using the image simultaneously with someone else, couldn’t they retain trademark rights if their use were equal to the others?

On the other hand, if a copyright is never claimed but the art has been gifted to a record company or a band, or, maybe was a ‘work for hire’ then wouldn’t the copyright belong to the beneficiary or employer?

And one more question: can one claim a trademark on an image they never registered, and that has been in the public domain?

I’m confused as to why no reports thus far address these questions. I plan to.

Some Answers: Banana Fanna Faux

Will Round Two of Cariou v Prince Change Art Law Forever?


You're going to see a lot of this guy -from Patrick Cariou's Yes Rasta

Go ahead, expect more of these sweaty headlines with question marks in them. Because, with the now rather infamous Cariou v Prince case up for appeal sometime this year, we are facing another deluge of half-informed, and angrily contentious, punditry which will wash over the raw, dry, factual sands of more professional reports like a tsunami of histrionics.

Drowning in the madness will be all those bleeding hearts who root for the little guy, and the sundry art world know-it-alls who root for controversy, along with the fastidious fence straddlers like myself who can’t do right by anyone — and, let us not forget, the stalwart naifs who insist on seeing appropriation as flat out theft.

In the background, lawyers toil away, building sand castles of the driest, rawest, facts they can muster.

It is no wonder that the case has captured the attention of so many. It involves a lot of money, after all, and it pits an underdog, Patrick Cariou, against an art star, Richard Prince, and his giant posse of star-makers and lawyers. It also comes after artists had become cocky, with most copyright infringement cases settling without trial, and often to the mutual benefit of defendants and plaintiffs.

At base the issue is this: Richard Prince’s team must prove that district court judge Deborah A. Batts ruled in error when she decided against Prince’s fair use claim. Patrick Cariou’s lawyer, Dan Brooks, must argue that the ruling did, in fact, use the correct legal standard.

Brooks will file his opening brief by January 25th. Faced with the formidable 135 page appeal filed on Oct. 26, 2011 by big guns Boies, Schiller & Flexner, and a nearly 50 page amicus brief filed on behalf of Richard Prince by the Andy Warhol foundation, plus similar briefs from Google and a consortium of museums (including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and The Art Institute of Chicago), Brooks will have to answer five newly refined points of contention.

  1. That contrary to the first circuit court’s decision, the Canal Zone works that use Cariou’s photos are indeed transformative in every sense established by art history and accepted artistic practice and constitute a fair use of those images.
  2. That Prince’s “intentions” do not factor into the meaning that his work may or may not have since it is the viewer and the context of a work that give it its meaning.
  3. That contrary to testimony, Cariou did not lose any marketing opportunities due to Prince’s use of his images; indeed, his lawyers argue, his book prices soared after the initial bout of litigation.
  4. That the first circuit decision, if upheld, will create a “chilling effect” on future creative work, and thereby will override the very purpose of the fair use exception which is intended to protect free speech and works of social value.
  5. That, in the Batts decision to protect the copyright holder, Patrick Cariou, the rights of the appropriation artist, Richard Prince were unduly impeded, as her ruling overreached in lumping all of the thirty paintings under one ruling.

In Part One of this Three Part series, I set up a virtual dialogue between Dan Brooks (Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.), Patrick Cariou’s lawyer and Anthony Falzone, executive director of the Fair Use Project and a Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School.

In Part Two, I will discuss the five points above in greater detail. In Part 3, I will part the waters.

Read the rest and look forward to Parts TWO and THREE on Hyperallergic

On Derivative Art and Law

Robert J. Lang's creation takes a munch break at MoMA

In my latest on Hyperallergic,  I gave Robert J. Lang the mic and he gave us a lesson in the history, diversity, and multiple uses of origami! He also comments very briefly on his current lawsuit against artist Sarah Morris whom he accuses of copyright infringement.

I have been following copyright infringement cases for a while now and find it very interesting that people tend to predict case outcomes based on their personal opinions about copyrights, or the individual artists, or the genres of art involved. Rarely do I see discussions about derivative art, copyrights, and lawsuits that actually deal with the legal issues that are involved.

The Lang v Sarah Morris case is a very good example. People who have taken a strong position in favor of derivative art are predicting that Morris cannot lose. Others see this as clear case of infringement and are rooting for the origami artists. But few seem to understand the legal terms they are using to support their emotional arguments. And fewer still seem to understand that the courts don’t care what sort of art you like.

The fact is, it can be pretty hard to predict the outcomes of these cases without a good look at the depositions and the court records. And arguments about the court’s decisions look pretty silly when they misunderstand terms like “transformative” or mistake the word “derivative” for an insult. These legal terms are too often reacted to in a naive and emotional way even by some who set themselves up as experts on the subject.

I will follow up here in a week or so, with an essay about the legal issues involved in these cases, and how they are misunderstood by the public.

James Turrell’s Tall Glass Half Full

Walter Bieri/Keystone, via Associated Press The artist James Turrell, who has negotiated a legal settlement with the Albion Gallery.
Walter Bieri/Keystone, via Associated Press The artist James Turrell, who has negotiated a legal settlement with the Albion Gallery.

Often disputes between artists and dealers can turn into something like a divorce with all the same spoilage. The one between James Turrell, and Michael Hue-Williams of Albion gallery displays several kinds of ugly, fouled-up business, soiled reputations, career sabotage, and — sigh– lots of compromise.

If a dealer thinks an artist is not delivering on a commission, he can bring the artist to court, for instance. as Hue-Williams did to Turrell in 2007.

And if an artist thinks a dealer is selling pieces that he was not consulted about or paid for, he can counter-sue, as Turrell did to Hue-Williams.

Now when a dealer is miffed and spending money on litigation, he may take a the semi-self-sabotaging action of selling the artist’s work off at auction to make the artist look bad. This is what Michael Hue-Williams hinted at in a 2008 e-mail.

Continue reading “James Turrell’s Tall Glass Half Full”

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