Popularity Doesn’t Erase Copyright Protection
Even if a work of art is widely known, that doesn’t mean its copyright protection is diluted. A dozen others may go unpunished for copyright infringement. But that’s no guarantee you can infringe without consequences.
At least that’s the lesson of Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures, Inc.
Steinberg’s Smash Hit
Saul Steinberg was a gifted artist known for his contributions to The New Yorker. In March 1976, his sketch View of the World from 9th Avenue became a cover page for this classic magazine and garnered much fame.
It’s a humorous work, known for its playful representation of ethnocentrism. The picture shows a broad chunk of New York City, followed by the rest of the world, which only occupies half of the land by comparison.
It was a hit.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, his portrait “inspired a legion of imitators.” And one of those imitators just happened to be Columbia Pictures.
The Ignored Copyright Protection
Years had passed since the publication of Steinberg’s work, and Columbia Pictures needed to promote its new movie, Moscow on the Hudson. However, the promotion of the film took a dark turn.
The summary judgment from the ensuing lawsuit recounts the details:
- The art director of Columbia admired Steinberg’s work—to the extent that it decorated his office.
- The director instructed a subordinate artist to use Steinberg’s work for inspiration to promote Moscow on the Hudson.
- The result was a poster markedly similar to Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue. (However, it’s important for filmmakers to note that the resemblance between the two was not completely identical. Certain visual elements were shifted.)
Steinberg took legal action against the corporate giant and came out a victor.
Lessons for Filmmakers
If you read about Steinberg’s artwork and the subsequent lawsuit from the summary judgment and other sources, there’s a striking fact.
There doesn’t seem to be a string of lawsuits surrounding the repeated violation of Steinberg’s copyright protection—just one.
Lesson #1: The lack of prior lawsuits does not guarantee the absence of future lawsuits. You may be the only one nailed for copyright infringement.
Don’t let a widely popular piece of art desensitize you to the living, breathing copyright that stands guard to protect it.
And there’s another lesson for filmmakers. In the summary judgment, there’s no mention of the producer being directly involved in ignoring the copyright protection. However, the producer of the film was a defendant in Steinberg’s suit.
Lesson #2: Producers need to ensure their film avoids unforeseen legal entanglements.
It’s possible your script violates a copyright protection, and you don’t even know about it. The key to avoiding the legal battles and court costs that can ensue is to obtain E & O Insurance.
However, you’ll need to clear your script of potential risks before an insurance provider underwrites your film. Takes steps now to get the insurance your film needs. Secure script clearance for your film, and protect your financial investment.