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.)

Rights-holders will tell you that a statutory license (also known as a compulsory license) is an infringement on their sacred property rights in their creative work.  I mean, of course they will – it hurts their economic interests to have one of their rights taken away from their own control and placed into federal government control, right?

Not exactly.  That viewpoint relies on the assumption that they have that right inviolate prior to the statutory license.  In the case of copyright, that viewpoint is often false as a matter of law – the rights in intellectual property explicitly being granted by the federal government (or, prior to 1972 for sound recordings, by the states), those rights often did not exist prior to grant, and as such if the grant is accompanied by a statutory regime for licensing, the characterization placed by rights holders of one of their rights being removed from their control is inaccurate.

However, when the right was a pre-existing grant, or an implied right that originates from some other explicitly recognized right, the characterization looks a lot better.  And when we cast it in the parlance of property, that some right of value to the right-holder is being taken away from them, our sympathy increases.

Should it?

It is not, I think, a new insight that property is no less a set of rights granted by the government than intellectual property.  I first ran across the notion in 1930s pieces by Robert Hale (Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State), discussing the coercive nature of property, and Morris Cohen (Property and Sovereignty), discussing the idea that property is not about rights over things but rather rights against others regarding things.  In this sense, all property is intellectual property – the ability to make some use of your property does not convey you the right to use it in that way (copying a copyrighted work, or creating a nuisance on your land), nor does having the ability to prevent others from using your property allow you to do so legally (DMCA exceptions to technological measures, the defense of necessity in trespass).  All property rights flow not from ownership of the piece of property, but from recognition by the coercive authority that such rights exist.

So, if we have this notion, that property both real and intellectual is not inherent, and that the two are equally created notions flowing from coercive authority, why is it we can create a statutory licensing regime for intellectual property but not real property?

I can offer two reasons.  First, we do, in fact, create statutory regimes in real property.  We are willing to create zoning ordinances that necessitate allowing certain uses of ostensibly private property.  We have a Takings Clause that is, essentially, statutory licensing of the coercive sale of land and its valuation in cases of sale to the government, and a Due Process clause that denotes the procedure for modification and removal of property rights.  The primary reason we limit statutory licensing of real property is because of resource contention issues (analogous to the tragedy of the commons) – unlike intellectual property, there is one and only one piece of land at 1776 Sovereignty Lane.  However, as noted, some limited statutory license regimes against real property do exist.

Second, we lack guidance, if not authority, in the case of real property.  Unlike intellectual property, we lack some equivalent to the Intellectual Property Clause, to guide us in *why* we might limit these rights.  Arguably other clauses of the Constitution provide this guidance – if nothing else we must try to “promote the general Welfare” – but none in quite so clear a relation as that in the IP Clause gives us.  We are reluctant enough (albeit partially because of the absolutist perception of property we attach to intellectual property) to limit the rights in intellectual property based on promotion of progress; much less so when we don’t have that clear a goal with respect to real property.

A side note: we are less reluctant to consider such exemptions in the case of trademark law and patent law, though still reluctant, than we are in the case of copyright law.  A possible reason for the greater willingness to provide exemptions in trademark and patent is that these are explicitly based in economic incentives (although trademark is derived from consumer confusion rationales, those rationales are themselves derived from an economic basis – the desire to increase commerce by allowing trademarks to serve a valuable signaling function, a function which is eliminated in the event of widespread trademark infringement).  Where the economic rationale is the reason we protect the right, we readily accept economic rationalizations for limiting the rights.  Contrast that with copyright.  Although we say copyright is economically motivated, that’s only a first level analysis.  We often dress up moral rights for authors in economic terms, and the goal explicitly stated in the Copyright Clause is not to maximize value to the creators of “Science”, but rather to promote the “Progress of Science”.  We attempt to maximize creation (and yes, creation can also be categorized economically – but in doing so, we potentially run into a version of the utilitarian moral monstrousness problem).  As a result, explicitly economic motives often ring false, especially when they seem to cut against creation of new works.