The New York fashion industry's poster child for street-inspired fashion, Public School, came under fire recently for using another brand's image. GFIRMG, a "multi-disciplinary creative unit," which was founded in May 2013, and which specializes in art-direction, print content, photography, music, video, and web development, accused Public School of posting an image that GFIRMG claims is theirs. Public School posted a derivative work clearly based on GFIRMG's image this past week along with the caption "#ss15 #distortion #psny," and removed it a day later after an array of commenters called attention to the fact that it looks a bit too much like GFIRMG's image.
GFIRMG's founder, who goes by the name Beefthang, subsequently reposted the image to his personal Instagram account with some comments of his own, namely: "Thanks for using my image and shitting on it with your inferior edits" and "For future references if the material does not belong to your permission of use it would be courteous of one to inform the sole owner of whom it pertains to for permission of use. In fact, the image source utilized is property of yours truly in which a watermark is implemented for prevention of such a disreputable act.@publicschoolnyc."
A bit of research reveals that Beefthang posted the original image to his Tumblr in February (or before), and several months later, in September, Public School revealed a sneak peek at their Spring/Summer 2015 collection. Style.com "asked some of the most anticipated names to offer a sneak peek of their latest collections" and the design duo provided an altered version of Beefthang's photo, which they cited as inspiration for their Spring/Summer 2015 collection and which Style.com labeled as "Courtesy of Public School."
While copyright infringement unfortunately comes along with the territory of social media and the at-time viral sharing of images, the problem here is not that Public School posted someone else's photo. Acccording to Beefthang's allegations, Public School posted a photo that was not theirs and was passing off the image as their own.
For arguments sake, let's assume that the Public School brand would argue that they made changes to the original photo, namely, the color scale, the background and the addition of lines and "x" graphics on the model's side, amount to creative input and thus, they aren't in the wrong. This may sound somewhat reasonable, but turns out, that's just not how copyright law works. One of the exclusive rights that comes along with the copyright in each individual work, such as a photo, is the right to create derivative works (aka: works that are based on the original copyrighted right). The Copyright Office's definition is: A work based on or derived from one or more already existing works. As I mentioned, along with the right to reproduce, distribute, display, etc. a copyrighted work, the owner of copyright has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, an adaptation (or derivative) of that work, and the unauthorized adaption of a work may constitute copyright infringement.
It appears that the two parties at issue have (thankfully) settled this matter, with Public School commenting on Beefthang's Instagram, saying: "Never had a source for image. Good Job!" Never the less, it is worth noting that in order to potentially avoid being sued for copyright infringement and/or being publicly shamed, it is essential that you receive authorization from the copyright holder because making some relatively minor changes to someone else's work does not necessarily mean you will be free of liability if a copyright infringement suit is filed.