Hearing from the Lawyers
Through my website I offer for sale some of my cartoons on a variety of products from t-shirts to coffee cups. It’s mainly a means to get my work out beyond the newspapers and put a few coins in my pocket. To do this I use the company Redbubble.com to manufacture and send out the swag. All I have to do is upload images, adjust how they’ll appear, and add relevant descriptions and keywords. Every month, I get a tiny royalty knowing which images sold, on what products, and on which continent.
It’s all quite fun until work is removed due to a charge of violating Redbubble’s IP/Publicity Rights Policy. Which happened to me when the Content Team sent the following email informing me of a complaint received by WN Music Company, LLC, regarding my caricature of Willie Nelson:
It’s a form letter so I’m not sure if the violation is using the lyric “Always on my mind”, or merely capitalizing on the Willie Nelson brand. Whatever the case I sense a mixture of emotions ranging from feeling like a criminal for looting Willie Nelson’s stash and besmirching his reputation, to being oppressed by big Music for freely expressing my admiration for a legend in a whimsical little doodle.
After a bit of reflection the position I find myself feeling is somewhere in the middle. As a cartoonist, I’ve had my own experience of others taking my work and repurposing it for their own benefit. I’m assuming the lawyers don’t like my use of the lyric, and the image was just the kicker in its eradication from the Redbubble site. The same sort of thing happened to another swag creator when lawyers for Taylor Swift sent a cease and desist letter for using her song lyrics on a coffee cup
The legal department at Redbubble.com must deal with a horrendous amount of copyright infringement complaints and a casual look through will find blatant rip offs of other artists and brands. It’s impossible for Redbubble to properly regulate until complaints are filed, and when they are it’s way easier for them to remove the offending item and not get involved in the legal wrangling that might ensue between the two parties.
While the free speech/expresionist instinct kicked in and I thought about removing the lyric and reposting the caricature as “Nillie Welson”, it’s not a sword I’m willing to fall on. It’s one thing to use the caricature of public personality in an editorial cartoon printed in a newspaper, and quite another to make money on that personality’s image.
Victory for the Willie Nelson brand, I suppose, and I’ll still enjoy his music.