FOREWARNED, FOREARMED AND FEARLESS - Information & Cultural Exchange


The process of finding an image to promote I.C.E.’s upcoming Arts Law workshops and legal advice sessions turned into an enlightening practical lesson in copyright, licensing and attribution.

We wanted an image that would illustrate one of the workshop topics and attract attention. A ‘famous film related lawsuits’ search revealed that lawsuits prior to and following the release of a major film are common in USA, even anticipated by large studios – budgeted for and with legal departments primed, perhaps*.

There are many websites, from industry-sensational to legal-serious, reporting on culture related lawsuits. They make good reading (as does art fraud), frustrating as well, as the details and payouts of cases settled out of court are usually undisclosed. Even in those cases where judgments are reached, payments can still be undisclosed and reported as ‘reputed to be in the vicinity of…’.

Look at 2016 cases to see what’s been happening this year and here’s a few oldies: Lucas Film tried to stop Reagan’s 1983 proposed Strategic Defence Initiative being referred to as ‘Star Wars’; aspects of the narrative of the trailer for Frozen uncannily resemble an existing short film previously seen by Pixar employees; Star Trek’s invented Klingon language – who owns it and who can use it – also caused an extensive ruckus. The list goes on From Here to Eternity (sic); The Matrix; Pirates of the Caribbean; The Sting; Cabin In The Woods. Definitely worth researching: Million Dollar Baby, where the suppliers of the “inflatable humanoid forms” used as match spectators (yes really) were sued by their inventor, and most instructive, Finding Nemo, where a bad outcome awaited the French author who claimed Pixar and Disney plagiarised his book “Pierrot Le Poisson Clown” when it was proven that Finding Nemo had been written before his story and he was convicted of fraud.

S. Victor Whitmill Vs Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc also caught my eye. Litigation commenced just weeks before the film premiere of The Hangover 2 when tattooist S. Victor Whitmill filed for a preliminary injunction to stop the film’s release claiming Warners Entertainment Inc. infringed his copyright when a tattoo design he created and applied to Mike Tyson’s face appeared in the film. The sub-plot: character Stu Price, played by Ed Helms, is so wasted (dead, surely) that he doesn’t recall getting the Tyson look-a-like tattoo. 

Reporting of this case is plentiful, Round 1 and Round 2, detail the case and present the legal arguments invoked by both sides: Irreparable Harm; Balance of the Equities and Public Interest and other arguments questioning the originality of the design and whether a design once applied to skin is own-able and copyright-able. The arguments around whether a person can own or have rights over parts of another’s body resulted in parallels being drawn with organ trafficking. So with the spectre of complex philosophical/legal questions requiring lengthy debate looming and the video release of the film pending, the case was amicably resolved in an undisclosed settlement. Good on them. Meanwhile, the phenomenal popularity of tattoos and their exposure on celebrity bodies has inevitably led to more tattoo related lawsuits.

Whatever your opinion* of The Hangover 2, S. Victor Whitmill Vs Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc turned out to be a thought provoking copyright case. So yes, a still from the film showing the facial tattoo, would serve our purposes.

Searching, we discovered there was no way we could use an image from the film without first buying a licence to use it. Copyright over film stills and marketing images is strict as studios sell them to media outlets and photographers and paparazzi make a living from their shots. So buying a licence to use a photo can be expensive; images related to The Hangover 2 certainly were. Not giving up, we searched laterally in copyright free websites.

We found our image, a stencil-style portrait of Mike Tyson, was available for use under a Creative Commons licence. The licence associated with the image granted permission for it to be used freely as long as correct attribution was made, stating: the type of licence with a link to it; the artist’s name; the title of the work; the URL hosting the work plus any other associated copyright notices. With the guidance of the Creative Commons website, finding and using a free image turned out to be straightforward – a simple, deadline-driven creative quest.

Despite the often dense, quizzical twists and turns of legal matters, to be forewarned is to be forearmed…and confident to act. The Arts Law Centre of Australia is another quality source of free information. Their Info Hub is searchable by topic and art form and the Education page details workshop programs and other opportunities.

If you use the specific film links above you’ll see the sophistication and complexity of film lawsuits and the weirdness and stupidity… Here is my favourite ongoing lawsuit, it definitely should be realised on film, probably something noir.


Words by Victoria Harbutt 

* The Australian Constitution does not expressly protect the freedom of expression and there are also limitations that can inhibit creative freedom in some situations, including defamation, anti-vilification, classification and censorship laws and the treason and urging violence offences., accessed 21.9.16.


Find out more about copyright and the legal issues effecting artists and filmmakers through the upcoming Arts Law Advice Sessions and Workshops held here at I.C.E.

Free Workshop for Screen Producers, Directors and Writers
Date: Monday 26 September
Time: 6-7pm
Venue: Information and Cultural Exchange, 8 Victoria Road Parramatta

Forewarned is Forearmed – Free Legal Advice Sessions
Are you looking for guidance regarding a specific legal issue Book in for a free 45 minute one on one session with an Arts Law specialist.
Date: Wednesday 26 October
Time: Sessions running all day.
Venue: Information and Cultural Exchange, 8 Victoria Road Parramatta
To book a time please contact Victoria Harbutt: [email protected]

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