What Can Mr. Brainwash Teach Us About Girl Talk?

Thierry Guetta, a/k/a Mr. Brainwash, is back in court for allegedly using photographs of famous musicians without authorization.  This time, however, he’s managed to drag Google into his mess.

By way of background, Guetta was sued in 2010 in the Central District of California by Gene Friedman, a photographer who took one of the most iconic photographs in hip hop, featuring Run DMC:
Guetta made several derivative works, which he commercialized on t-shirts and postcards, including:

and

To create the Broken Records Work, Guetta caused a digital image of the Photograph to be altered so as to remove most of the detail from its subjects, leaving an outline of the group’s features. … Guetta then had the image projected onto a large piece of wood and painted the image onto the wood.  Thereafter, Guetta glued more than 1,000 pieces of broken phonograph records onto the painted wood. The result was a three-dimensional image of Run-DMC created entirely from broken records. (Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment)

and
Guetta claimed that his derivative works were either transformative (and, therefore, fair use under § 107) or did not use copyrightable portions of Friedman’s original (and, therefore, could not constitute infringement).

In this case, the District Judge disagreed with Guetta.  Regarding the question of whether the portions of the photograph copied were copyrightable, Judge Pregerson concluded the Friedman “selected and arranged the subjects. Although the court believes that no more is
required, the court also notes that [Friedman] made related decisions about light and shadow, image clarity, depth of field, spatial relationships, and graininess that were all represented in the copyrighted Photograph. [Friedman] also selected the background
and perspective of the Photograph, and all of these particular artistic decisions commulatively result in the Photograph.”  Having found the photo copyrightable, Judge Pregerson quickly concluded that Guetta had, indeed, infringed Friedman’s copyright.

Regarding Guetta’s claim that his use was fair because the works were transformative, Judge Pregerson again disagreed, concluding that “[Guetta] has not offered a transformative alternative use of the Photograph image. Both [Friedman] and [Guetta] are artists, and the image was used by both in works of visual art for public display. Although the statements made by those respective artworks and the mediums by which those respective statements were made differ, the use itself is not so distinct as to render Defendant’s use a transformation of Plaintiff’s copyright.”

Judge Pregerson’s opinion is below.

Now, Guetta finds himself a defendant again, this time being sued by the estate of James Marshall for allegedly doing exactly the same thing with Marshall’s photographs as he did with Friedman’s; i.e., taking the photo and manipulating it to look different, while still being able to recognize the artist-subject matter. (Marshall v. Guetta, 12-cv-3423-SJO (C.D. Cal.).  So why is Google on the hook?  According to the complaint,  Google held an event to launch its music service at Guetta’s studio, where Guetta installed a backdrop using blown-up derivative works of Marshall’s photos of John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of Marshall’s original photo and Guetta’s:

The Google event at Guetta’s studio with the allegedly infringing art in the background :

And, what does all this have to do with Girl Talk?  Peter Friedman argued here that the reason mash-up artist Girl Talk has not been sued by the record labels is because the argument that Girl Talk “transformed the copyrighted materials sufficiently that his work constitutes non-infringing fair use is just too good.”  Judge Pregerson’s opinion appears to undercut such arguments.  For example, Guetta’s transformation was such that the underlying work was still identifiable (i.e., Guetta’s intent was for viewers to recognize his art as depicting Run DMC or Coltrane or Hendrix, thus capturing the essence of the original photo).  The same is obviously true for Girl Talk, who relies on listeners’ recognition of the underlying songs to make his music more popular.  Extending Pregerson’s logic, both Girl Talk and the recording artists he samples are are “artists” and though “the statements made by those respective artworks and the mediums by which those respective statements were made differ, the use itself is not so distinct as to render Defendant’s use a transformation of Plaintiff’s copyright.”

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