Katy Perry’s Left Shark – Copyright
In the last blog post, we discussed Katy Perry’s attempts to secure a trademark in “Left Shark” and a design image of a shark. That discussion focused on trademark, which protects phrases and images that identify and distinguish a source of goods or services. Copyright, on the other hand, protects works of authorship, such as drawings, songs, musical recordings, or books.
Cease and Desist Letter
Florida-based artist Fernando Sosa markets himself as “Political Sculptor,” [http://politicalsculptor.com/] and creates irreverent 3D-printed figurines inspired by current events and world politics. Immediately after Katy’s halftime show, Fernando began selling Left Shark figurines. On February 3 (the Super Bowl took place on February 1), Katy’s legal team sent Fernando a Cease and Desist letter asserting that he was violating Katy’s rights under U.S. copyright law. They also sent a takedown notice to Shapeways, the website selling Fernando’s figurines, and Left Shark was promptly removed from the site. Fernando decided to make the fight public, explaining on his blog: “Usually when it comes to small business owners, when the lawyers come after you the outcome is usually pretty predictable. I decided to finally take a stand and break the usual cycle of rolling over or giving into legal threats.” He engaged the services of a prominent intellectual property attorney, NYU Law Professor Christopher Sprigman, to respond to Katy’s lawyers. Fernando also shared the electronic files online so that anyone with a 3D printer would be able to create their very own Left Shark sculptures.
Cease and Desist Responses
Professor Sprigman’s response letters brought up two points of copyright law. First, under U.S. copyright law, costumes and clothes are generally not copyrightable. He asked Katy’s lawyers to explain why the Left Shark costume should be treated any differently. He also questioned whether Katy Perry actually was the author of any Left Shark works of authorship, citing to Katy’s interview in Elle magazine where she explained: In my show, I am boss daddy. I am boss mommy. They call me Boss. Everything goes through my eyes; I call all the shots, 100 percent of it. With the NFL, I have to be accountable to several levels of red tape. There are many committees I have to go through for my costumes, the budgets of my show, every interview – everything, I have to report to somebody. So I am no longer the boss; I have to relinquish that control.” The Copyright Act requires all transfers of copyright ownership to be in writing. [https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/204] Thus, Professor Sprigman brought up a cogent point that the Left Shark design may belong to another individual or the NFL. Katy’s lawyers answered Professor Sprigman’s first point by explaining that Katy’s team created multiple shark drawings in the process of designing the costumes, and those were copyrightable. They also explained that “multiple elements” within the costume itself were copyrightable, though did not explain specifically which elements these were. Katy’s lawyers also quickly asserted that Katy did, “pursuant to the terms of multiple agreements,” own all relevant copyrights to her dancing sharks.
After receiving Professor Sprigman’s first letter, Katy’s legal team asserted in addition to copyright infringement claims, they would also bring claims under unfair competition law, because “it is clear that any commercial value that your client’s sculptures have derives solely from the public’s association of them with Ms. Perry.” Unfair competition is a set tort claims that can be brought against a party that causes an economic injury to a business through a deceptive or wrongful business practice. In the intellectual property context, unfair competition often is an accompanying claim to trademark infringement and the attempt to use an already-established name, logo, or other identifying characteristic to deceive consumers into thinking that they are buying the product of a competitor.
“Left Shark Belongs to Us All”
In the last exchange between Professor Sprigman and the Katy’s lawyers, the professor made a salient point about the collective capabilities of the Internet: “No one knew that one of the sharks dancing next to Katy Perry during the Super Bowl halftime show was Left Shark until the Internet told us so. The Internet decided that Left Shark’s flubbed dance moves were hilarious. [The Internet] gave Left Shark his name, and then made him into a meme. Left Shark isn’t really about Katy Perry.” In April 2015, Fernando retained a new attorney in Florida to continue work on his instinctual property infringement/unfair competition case with Katy Perry but, as of the date of this writing, any new developments between the two have yet to be publicly shared.
Photo taken by ShoreShot Photography