Balloon Dogs à Faire

February 2, 2011

Jeff Koons has been pursuing an interesting course of action lately.  Koons, who is primarily known for his appropriation artwork, created a sculpture that consists essentially of a solidified form in the shape of a balloon dog.  It’s actually a very cool sculpture, exhibited at the Met in NYC.  And now?  Now he’s suing people who make balloon dog bookends.

As always, there’s a few issues here.  First, it should be noted that Koons has some experience with being on the receiving end of several infringement lawsuits.  And losing, generally (though he did win a recent one).  While people have accused Koons of some level of hypocrisy in bringing this suit, I don’t blame him – if he’s going to be harmed by the law, he ought to take advantage of it where he can.  More importantly, there is some level of distinction (if you assume Koons genuinely believes that Park Life is copying HIS balloon dog, instead of, as I will address below, the concept of the balloon dog) here – Koons historically has engaged in transformation of his appropriated works, and this seems to just be direct infringement for profit.  His motives for bringing the suit may be slightly cynical, but because of these differences (and, perhaps, because of my own basic view on the appropriateness of cynicism) I don’t see it as hypocritical or unfair.

Second, and this is really the major issue: does Koons really have a workable copyright here?  His balloon dog sculpture meets that bare minimum of originality required, it’s fixed in tangible form, so there’s no real creation issue.  Ignoring the subject matter, we have to assume there’s a copyright here.

But.  There are a couple limiting doctrines in copyright needing some thought: merger and scenes a faire.

Scenes a faire is a fairly simple concept – there are certain elements that are so integral to a conception of certain things, and in a way so generic, that you can’t copyright them.  Although you don’t have to use them, they’re kind of core.  Nazis singing in a beer hall in a WW2 movie, numbered Swiss bank accounts and ridiculous gadgets in a spy movie, three-chord structures in pop music – these are just “the way things are expected to be”.  Scenes a faire.  Now, if you were to say “balloon dog” to just about anyone, it’s going to conjure up a very specific image – the exact image Koons relied on in creating his sculpture.  Under scenes a faire, you need some fairly exacting levels of copying of this type of work for it to be infringing.  If you examine the Koons sculpture linked above and the Park Life bookends you’ll probably see a few differences.  Just at a glance, the tail is quite different (a stub versus the extended sting of the Koons work), general shape (slightly more rounded), and the angle of specific components varies between the two.  Analogous to Ets-Hokin v. Skyy, the underlying item/idea is being expressed in ways that are different enough to not be infringing.

Merger is the other applicable doctrine.  Insofar as there is only one way (or a very limited number of ways) to create a balloon dog, merger prevents the copyrighting of those expressions in order to protect the ability to express the underlying idea (a dog made from a balloon).  You can’t copyright a representation of a poker hand or a chess board.  You can’t copyright the mathematical expression of the mass-energy equivalence implied by the Special Theory of Relativity.  These ideas have limited ways in which they can be expressed, and copyright in those expressions would effectively prevent any use of the underlying ideas.  (If you don’t understand why I keep using expression and idea, you should read about the idea/expression distinction in copyright law.)  Arguably, the idea of a balloon dog merges into the expression in such a way that you can’t copyright it, or can only copyright it in very limited ways – in this sense, merger and scenes a faire reflect different aspects of the same general concern, though merger may be less applicable here insofar as (as evidenced in Ets-Hokin or looking at the two dogs side by side) there are fine gradations of expression available.

In the end, Koons probably doesn’t have a very good case here; there’s enough difference, and enough hostility to the notion of the idea of a copyright in the balloon dog shape, that his claim has to fail.  Koon’s claim in video form?

(On a final, non-legal note – I like the idea of the judge or jurors taking a trip to the Met in order to get the best possible view of the Koons work.)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: