Copyright law applied to Lady Liberty stamp dispute

It is always satisfying to artists when others recognize their vision in a work of art. For example, when an artist created a replica of the Statue of Liberty for a resort in another state, he hoped the general public would notice the contemporary, even sexy, changes he made in the statue's image. Apparently, the U.S. Postal Service did not notice those differences when it chose the image for one of its stamps. However, even a mistake can be a violation of copyright law.

In 2011, USPS was looking for a fresh image of Lady Liberty for its new forever stamps, which consumers can purchase for one price and continue to use no matter how often the price of stamps rises. What Postal Service agents thought was a picture of the statue in the New York Harbor was actually a photo of the replica created by a sculpture for a New York-themed casino in Las Vegas. The stamp was released for public use three months before USPS realized they had made a mistake.

The sculptor took the matter to federal court, claiming he had a right to a portion of the profits the Postal Service generated from the sale of the stamp. The Postal Service, however, maintained that the image of the casino statue was too similar to the original New York statue for the sculptor to claim copyright. The judge disagreed, stating that the replica had very different, more feminine, features than the original, and he awarded the sculptor $3.5 million dollars of the $70 million profit the stamp earned.

While copyright law is clear, it is not always easy to prove when an artist's rights have been violated. There is often a fine line, and an artist may have to present overwhelming evidence to convince a court. Having a savvy and experienced attorney can make all the difference when facing the difficult task of preserving one's rights in a copyright dispute.

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