Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
This time last year, Donald Trump cheerfully gloated that he had just bought his own campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again”.
“I’ve even copyrighted it, can you believe it?” Nobody else can use it,” he said.
Actually Mr. Trump, you “trademarked” the phrase, not “copyrighted” it – there’s a world of legal difference between the two.
It’s fitting that the Republican presidential nominee misunderstands copyright law even when he’s on the right side of it. His campaign’s flagrant “borrowing” of images, music and even speeches continues to make news headlines and inspire hashtags. Although the sheer number of copyright cases against him is excessive, they’re surprisingly not that out of place in mainstream American politics.
Trump’s got a lot of troubles when it comes to intellectual property, but as the following cases make clear he’s far from being the only infringer. These would-be lawmakers can play the honest politician as much as they like out on the campaign trail — taking office is never an excuse to steal photos.
A ballot of the biggest political image thieves…
Photographers flip the bird at Trump
Back in March, two wildlife photographers sued Mr. Trump for flying their iconic photo of an American bald eagle photo over his for-sale yard signs. “Trump for President” inc. not only brandished the bird without permission– they even encouraged its liberal (no pun intended) re-use among supporters.
Trump settled the case confidentially, something which never ever happens…according to himself: “Once you settle lawsuits, everybody sues you.” It’s a better reality than “Trump sues everyone”, but out of his staggering 3,500 lawsuits, he’s actually settled more than 150 throughout his career.
When the writer of a copyright bill infringes copyright…
Remember the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)?
This controversial bill from 2011 was supposed to give the U.S. government more tools to tackle online copyright infringement, but in a way, many argued would damage free speech rights.
The internet warred over the legislation, meanwhile VICE revealed that US congressman and SOPA co-author Lamar Smith had used two Creative Commons images on his campaign website without attribution. The website was soon taken down “for maintenance”, and its code was changed to prevent anyone from seeing the archived versions.
Nothing drums up support like photo theft
Every year, many politicians will try and raise support on the back of a national tragedy. It’s a dangerous move that can easily backfire, something former Alaska governor Sarah Palin learned the hard way when a newspaper publisher sued her for stealing their iconic 9/11 photo.
Her political action committee (or PAC) posted the image on her website and Facebook page, with neither credit nor permission. The lawsuit was only filed after a request to remove the photo was ignored, and even after Palin agreed to settle for $15,000, she was later accused of stalling the settlement by using a confidentiality agreement.
A beautiful newborn photo op turned ugly
There was global outrage over this case of image theft: A viral photo, showing a gay couple meeting their newborn son for the first time, was used on an anti-surrogacy poster by far-right Italian politicians.
As a photographer, having your photo stolen makes for an upsetting discovery, but it’s so much worse learning that your work is being used to promote hate and bigotry. Naturally, both Toronto fathers along with the photographer were appalled over the unauthorized and malicious use of their photo and filed a lawsuit against the party.
How politicians use and abuse legal takedowns to censor critics
You don’t have to be smarter than Donald Trump to figure out that political criticism, even when it turns a profit, isn’t infringement. Whenever a politician ends up on the plaintiff side of a copyright or trademark dispute, there’s a good chance it’s just a guise to silence critics, or to pluck an unflattering parody from the internet.
Trump is notorious for suing the pants off of anyone who offends him and has also filed over 200 trademark applications featuring his own name. As you can imagine then, he’s sent more than the odd bogus takedown. In September of last year, his campaign team threatened legal action against www.StopTrump.us; an online clothing store where you could buy T-shirts proclaiming “Donald is Dumb” and “America is Already Great” — his legal-counsel even referred to the mocked-up slogans as “cyber-piracy”.
For the sake of fairness, Hillary Clinton has also been guilty of undertaking this form of legal horseplay. Her PAC once sent a takedown notice to Zazzle and CafePress over a parody campaign sign, which replaced “Hillary” with “Oligarchy”. The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen went so far as to threaten legal action if the claim was not retracted.
That’s not to say Trump isn’t in good company within his own party though.
Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member, once took a Conservative blog to court after they savaged her political views. She argued that using an old headshot of her in the article was a copyright infringement, but it’s more likely she was attempting to unmask the anonymous author by forcing him into the judicial process. The blog argued that tarnishing Harmeet’s reputation with a photo originally meant to flatter her was a crystal clear example of transformative fair use — which the court happily agreed with.
Finally, there’s the strangest takedown move we’ve probably ever seen: former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson alleged an infringement of copyright, trademark and “privacy” rights against a website selling third-party T-shirts, bumper stickers, and lawn signs…that were in support of his presidential bid!
There’s no “left” or “right” when it comes to respecting copyright
As much as we (not unfairly) picked on Donald Trump in this article, it’s worth remembering that a working copyright system can benefit everyone, and is vital to fostering creativity and our economy.
Whichever party line you’re on, we must all agree that unlawfully using other people’s images for your political agenda, or sending copyright takedowns to limit free speech should not be the typical behavior of future lawmakers.
For these reasons and more, we at Pixsy encourage you to sign the Copyright Alliance’s open letter to the 2016 political candidates – urging them to uphold the rights of creators nationwide.