US Postal Service breaches copyright in the Statue of Las Vegas

By Miriam Stiel
Industrials Intellectual Property Patents & Trade Marks

In brief

A US Federal Court has ordered the US Postal Service to hand over $3.5 million to a Las Vegas sculptor after the former accidentally copied the sculptor's artistic work on a Statue of Liberty postage stamp. Law Graduate Ammy Singh explains.

Mistaken identity

In 2010, the US Postal Service (USPS) released a stamp design using a resized and cropped photograph from Getty Images that it believed was a depiction of the Statue of Liberty. It was at least three months and 3 billion stamps later that the USPS realised its mistake: the stamp pictured the wrong Lady Liberty. Rather than the original New York statue, the photograph featured in the stamp was actually of a Statue of Liberty replica outside the New York-New York casino hotel in Las Vegas.

The sculptor who created the Las Vegas statue, Robert Davidson, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the USPS in 2013. The USPS discontinued the stamp design in 2014, after generating $2.1 billion in revenue from the sale of 4.9 billion stamps, of which $70 million was profit. In June this year, Federal Judge Eric Bruggink found that the Las Vegas statue was an original design and had been used without permission or attribution by the USPS.

Lady Liberty's makeover

At trial, the USPS argued that Davidson's artwork was too similar to the original Statue of Liberty to be protected by copyright. Davidson argued that his version of Lady Liberty is unmistakably different to the original because it is 'sultry', 'sexier', and more 'fresh-faced'. Davidson stated that he made the statue's appearance 'a little more modern, a little more feminine' than the original, which he perceived to be harsher and less welcoming than his own design.

Among the changes Davidson made were sculpting more defined eyes and eyelids, and a pronounced cupid's bow shape on Lady Liberty's upper lip. According to Davidson, this design was inspired by his mother-in-law's face.

The court was ultimately satisfied that Davidson had succeeded in making the statue his own creation. Judge Bruggink found that the differences between the statues were 'plainly visually observable' and not merely ideas. As the USPS did not have a defence to its otherwise unauthorised use of the statue, it was ordered to compensate Davidson to the tune of $3.5 million in damages.

Lessons in taking Liberties

USPS's costly blunder, which attracted considerable media attention, demonstrates the potential pitfalls of using stock photo services without confirming the original source (and subject matter) of the image. If Lady Liberty's face suddenly looks more alluring over 100 years after arriving in Manhattan, check that she hasn't had a makeover since you last saw her.