Some 20 years ago, a World War II veteran and prominent sculptor won a government competition to sculpt a memorial to Korean War veterans in Washington, D.C. His creation depicts a platoon of stainless steel, larger‑than‑life foot soldiers arranged in what has come to be called “The Column.” Five years later, another veteran, an amateur photographer, took photographs of the memorial. One of these photographs eventually was used by the federal government on a widely distributed postage stamp, for which the government paid the photographer $1,500.
As for the sculptor, he had not been informed of the stamp in advance, nor had anyone sought his permission for it or paid him anything for it. He sued the government for copyright infringement. Certainly, there were principles at stake, but there was also potentially a lot of money in play. The Postal Service received more than $17 million from sales of the stamp, not to mention additional income from the use of the stamp on retail goods such as commemorative panels and framed art. The sculptor wanted a share of that money.
At a trial before the Court of Federal Claims, the court determined that the sculptor was the sole copyright owner of “The Column,” rather than a joint owner with the government, and that “The Column” did not qualify for an exclusion from copyright infringement liability as an architectural work under the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act. However, the court also determined that the government was not liable for copyright infringement because the government’s use of “The Column” was a fair use. The fair use doctrine requires courts to avoid rigid application of the copyright statute when it would stifle the very creativity that the law is designed to foster.
On appeal, a federal appellate court reversed on the pivotal issue of fair use, and sent the case back to the court below for consideration of the sculptor’s damages. The Postal Service’s stamp containing an image of the soldier sculptures did not “transform” the character of the sculptures so as to support a finding of fair use under established copyright law. Rather, both the stamp and the sculptures shared the common purpose of honoring veterans of the Korean War.
While the stamp altered the appearance of the sculptures by adding snow and muting the color, those alterations did not impart a different character to the work. In addition, although the stamp did not harm the market for derivative works, which is another consideration in fair use analysis, the appellate court concluded that allowing the government to commercially exploit a creative and expressive work would not have advanced the purposes of copyright in this particular case.