Get a Release? Get a Life…

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This is an issue of photography and simple fairness. A friend and colleague here in Seattle has been slapped with a $60,000 copyright infringement lawsuit by an artist who created a set of popular iconic “dance footsteps” on the public sidewalk in a local neighborhood. Mike Hipple, a part-time travel photographer and father of two, took a picture of someone “dancing” to the steps as a symbol of Seattle, and it eventually sold as a stock photograph – for the princely sum of $60.

When notified by the sculptor that the footsteps were copyrighted, Mike and the stock agency that held it immediately agreed to remove the photo and ultimately destroyed it. The agency paid some damages for the alleged infringement. Fair enough. But a year later the artist came after Mike.

Now, I am loathe to argue against an artist trying to protect his work – God knows I have been ripped off any number of times – but this suit seems vastly out-of-proportion to the offense. How many of us have pictures in our collection of public art : the Merrill Lynch bull on Wall Street, the “Bean” in Chicago, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC?  Do we all have property releases for those images?  I doubt it.

It would be one thing if Mike had tried to suggest that the footsteps were his own original work, or used them to sell commercial products. But this was a simple travel shot, showing a beloved piece of public art. But now Mike may have to sell his home to settle this suit. Go figure.

So, my advice?  Be careful next time you trip the shutter, and get a property release for any public object if you plan to selling it as a print, in a magazine or to a friend.   Sad.

For more information (and to see the offending picture), see Bob Krist’s wonderful travel blog.

To help Mike, consider a donation to his legal defense fund.  This issue affects all of us.

I welcome comments on this complicated subject.


    I first read about this on Bob Krist’s blog a day or so ago. I couldn’t agree more with your characterization of this unfortunate situation. It seems so painfully obvious that there was no copyright infringement by Mr. Hipple. That seems to be the consensus of the many opinions I’ve read so far. I’m shocked, angered and deeply frustrated that a lawsuit such as this would even go before the courts, though I suppose that’s a result of a rather vaguely worded law. Copyright infringement is of course a serious issue, but in my opinion this looks for all the world like someone simply trying to make a quick buck. Perhaps I’m naive, but I would expect fellow artists to show a bit more respect towards each other. Very sad. Thanks for shining a light on this important issue. I wish Mr. Hipple all the best.

    Paul, Thanks for your comments. Yes, the whole thing seems obvious – almost absurd – except when you’re staring at a lawsuit. I’m with you in hoping that Mike can find his way out of this mess. It will help when more people know about it.

    Aside from the fact that placing something like foot steps on public property INVITES the taking of photographs of them and (almost certainly) lacking any readily visible claim of copyright, the footprints are technically defacing public property, a punishable crime which may be prosecuted as “tagging” in many jurisdictions (also a felony in some jurisdictions). Furthermore, what is unique about a set of foot prints on a sidewalk. Are they actually subject to copyright protection in the first place either under common law or federal statutes?

    I would be inclined to file criminal charges against the individual now claiming to “own” the footprints. Not only that, but, by placing the footprints on public property, it is more likely than not that they have become public property, therby voiding any claim of copyright. More precisely, as contraband they are not subject to “ownership” at all.

    Mike should crush this vermin like a bug on a windshield.

    “Sword” – I agree with your sentiments, although I’m not so sure the law will agree with you entirely… The “footprints” were commissioned by the City of Seattle, so I think they’re immune from the defacing public property charge! But the rest of it is, unfortunately, a lot more murky. Still, if it’s justice you want – throw this case out…

    It sounds to me that the City of Seattle (and any other governmental body) commissions a piece of art, the rights of protection should transfer to the purchaser. Either that or stop public commission of artwork to protect the general public from inadvertent infringement.


    Interesting point – thanks for weighing in. I do think the “commissioned public art” argument is a compelling one. By the way, I will be passing all these comments on to Mike – maybe they can actually help in his defense…


    To take a guy to court for such a thing, and after there has been some amends made, seems more than petty and vindictive, it seems outright stupid.

    It’s one thing if he took a photo of the steps, and another if he took a photo of somebody dancing on them! Justice said it right, they invite people to take photos of them!

    I have plenty of photos that could easily fall into the same category. Photos of sculpture, etc, although, I guess, I haven’t sold any, but even so…

    I live here in Seattle, and kind of like those steps, have even danced on them a few times, but I’m not so sure I do any more.

    I think the $60,000 lawsuit a year after the initial contact is ridiculous, but I have no problem with hammering someone into the ground for copyright infringement.

    I’m so tired of so many people today feeling they can do anything they want with copyrighted material. As a professional photographer and writer, I’m constantly guarding my work against theft. I’ve already lost over $1,000,000 due to theft of my copyright protected material (read about it here )

    For some reason, many people feel that it’s okay to steal photographs, music, movies, books or anything else they can take. What ever happened to being a law abiding citizen?

    Have Fun,


    Jeff – Thanks for weighing in, and for passing along the link to your case. Yes, I am with you entirely that there isn’t much respect these days for the work of creative people: after all, several of my images are splashed illegally all over the internet. So I feel a bit odd weighing in on what appears to be the opposite side here. My problem, in fact, is only with the scale and animosity of the lawsuit, both of which seem far out of proportion to the crime. Particularly since that the agent and photographer complied with the artist right away – and removed the picture. There are plenty of legitimate infringement cases out there – like yours – against deliberate and unrepentant thieves. Good luck going after the bastards.

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