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.