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Point Loma: Oscar Wilde And Copyright Law

Many celebrities live in Southern California and attend the Oscar ceremony. Below is an article about a different “Oscar” but one as famous. Our firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP would be pleased to offer you a complimentary and confidential consultation on estate planning or family law. Please feel free to call or e mail our law firm.

Nineteenth-century writer Oscar Wilde had not yet produced the works for which he is best known when he came to the United States in 1882 for a lecture tour to promote a touring opera. He clearly was a celebrity in the making, however, and that is what brought him to the attention of Napolean Sarony. Sarony was making a name for himself, and lots of money, in the still emerging field of photography. He took photographs of the rich and famous, to whom he paid large sums in return for the exclusive right to distribute the photographs.

Wilde posed for 27 pictures taken by Sarony. When the most famous of these was used in an advertisement without Sarony’s permission, he sued. The defendant was a lithographer who was said to have reproduced many thousands of copies of the image. Sarony alleged a violation of his copyright in the photograph. The defense was that Congress had the power to protect authors’ writings, but not authors’ photographs, which were described as mere reproductions of nature created by the operator of a machine.

The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court (which itself was later the subject of a formal photographic portrait by Sarony). In a decision that has been valuable to photographers and copyright seekers ever since, the Court ruled that Sarony’s photograph did indeed have copyright protection. The photograph was deemed a work of art and the product of the photographer’s “intellectual invention,” no different in nature from a novel. Rebutting the argument that taking a photograph has nothing to do with imagination, the Court described Sarony, as an art critic might have done, as having set up his subject “so as to present graceful outlines, arranging and disposing the light and shade, suggesting and evoking the desired expression.”

The essential holding in Sarony’s case is no less valid today, but more than a century later there are added layers of legal analysis to consider in our copyright jurisprudence. For example, in a recent case, a photographer took pictures of a blue vodka bottle for use in the vodka producer’s marketing. The company then had other photographers take similar photos of the bottle and ended up using them in its advertising campaign. The first photographer sued for copyright infringement in his photographs. He reached back into the 19th century to cite the Sarony case, but lost.

The problem was not that the photographs were unworthy of copyright protection. Everyone agreed they were. However, under a doctrine that is now well established in copyright law, courts will not protect a copyrighted work if the idea underlying it can be expressed only in one way, such that the idea and the expression of it “merge.” The basic question in the case was, “How many ways are there to create a ‘product shot’ of a blue vodka bottle?” The court’s answer was “not very many.”

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