Mary Katrantzou, the celebrated London-based designer known for her ornate prints and lampshade skirts, has been the target of incessant copying since she launched her brand in 2008. In fact, she has been quite vocal about her displeasure in being copied; telling The Telegraph several years ago, “When you put ‘lampshade skirt’ in Google, you get ASOS! It’s so unfair!” Well, now Katrantzou is on the receiving end of a copyright infringement suit. Turns out, Myoung Ho Lee, a Seoul-based photographer, who is going at it without an attorney (this is called “pro se” legal representation), claims that Katrantzou incorporated one of his “internationally acclaimed” photographs into one of her designs without the authorization to do so.
Lee, who is best known for his “Tree Series,” which consists of photos of “solitary trees framed against white canvas backdrops in the middle of natural landscapes,” made his American debut in March 2009 when his work was displayed by the Yossi Milo Gallery is New York. His “Tree Series” also serves as the foundation of a New York Times T Magazine interactive feature, which was published in May 2013. The magazine wrote of Lee, “His pictures possess the glamour and focus of studio portraits, yet they’re set in the landscape — be it a golden meadow or a cloudy blue sky dotted with balloons.”
As for the UK, where Katrantzou is based, Lee’s work has been highlighted by major publications ranging from The Telegraph to fashion industry favorite, AnOther magazine. His “Tree Series” was also included in a number of books, including “Unexpected Art,” which was released by London-based publishers, Abrams & Chronicle Books.
According to the lawsuit, which Lee filed in federal court in San Francisco, Katrantzou’s work violates his federally registered copyright. Specifically at issue: Katrantzou’s “T for Tree” t-shirt (above, right), which retails for $520 and is part of a 26-piece capsule collection built around the alphabet, entitled “Mary’s A to Z.” Unlike a bunch of other letters (think: Q is for Queen, R is for River, I is for Ice and J is for Jazzy, etc.), which come in a t-shirt, sweatshirt, tote bag trio, the “T is for Tree” style is currently only available as a t-shirt on Katrantzou’s e-commerce site. Per Lee’s complaint, Katrantzou’s tee it clearly includes his “Tree… #3” design (above, left), albeit a slightly altered version.
According to Lee’s copyright registration, which was issued just last month, he created the work in 2011 and it was first published in 2012. These dates seems to be at odds with the information listed above, namely, his U.S. gallery debut in 2009; this is not terribly consequential, though, as Katrantzou was likely not using the image before Lee was. As the holder of this federally registered copyright, Lee has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license, and to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work, per the Copyright Act. Where we run into trouble here is either in terms of reproduction or by way of the creation of a derivative work. (Note: A derivative work is a new, original product that includes aspects of a preexisting, already copyrighted work. Only copyright owners have the exclusive right to produce derivative works based on their original, copyrighted works.)
Chances are, Katrantzou likely believed she changed enough of Lee's work to skirt legal ramifications (and has bad counsel). While this will likely settle out of court, stay tuned …