Oakland Artist Talks About his Battle with Tech Exec Over Image

Image from "Business Reply" by Packard Jennings (Courtesy of the artist)

Oakland artist Packard Jennings is no stranger to the press. His politically-conscious artwork has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Artforum, and many other publications. But he's currently receiving media attention for a Craigslist post he had nothing to do with -- a San Diego tech executive used an image of Jennings' without permission for a "developers wanted" ad, which went viral. Now, instead of concentrating solely on his next work, Jennings is having to get "medieval" on Chatmeter CTO Paul Koch for the exec's copyright infringement.

Jennings took a few minutes to answer some questions from KQED Arts about the situation and what he plans to do next.

How did you learn about your pic being used in the ad?
This Craigslist post went viral. Beyond the attention on news sites, it blew up on social media. Several people recognized my work when it was posted on both Facebook and on the San Francisco Chronicle’s site. I was contacted about it by three separate people.

Jennings in Switzerland back in 2006. (Courtesy of  Jennings)
Jennings in Switzerland back in 2006. (Courtesy of Jennings)

How far are you willing to take this?
I’m willing take this as far as it needs to go. I’d rather it didn’t get to the point of needing to go to court, but I have been consulting several copyright lawyers and the California Lawyers for the Arts, in case it goes there. If it goes to court, it goes to court. It is a pretty cut-and-dry case of copyright infringement. They don’t have a leg to stand on, really.

What would be proper compensation?
If he comes to me with a sincere offer that seems adequate I will consider it, but that could be a question for lawyers. The standard ranges of fines for copyright infringement are laid out in my first letter.

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Has this happened to you before?
I had someone selling a copy of my Bible Sticker, which I give away for free. It is based on stickers in Georgia biology school textbooks in 2005, which warned: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. It should be read with an open mind and critically considered." The Bible Sticker is given away for free with the instructions: “Keep this sticker in your wallet. When you stay in a motel, adhere your sticker to the inside jacket of the Bible.” Someone directed me to a person selling it on some site that custom prints T-shirts and stickers to order for vendors who have “stores” on the site. I contacted them and they took it down. It was made to be given away, not sold.

Jennings' second letter to Paul Koch
Jennings' second letter to Paul Koch

Does it matter if what he did was just a mistake?
I understand that people slip up and show a lapse in judgement. If he were just some guy trying to sell a bike, I wouldn’t sweat it. Everyone knows when they are using copyrighted artwork. In this case, he used it for an advertisement to gain publicity and recruit employees. In his own words (see the Netshark interview) he set out to create a viral campaign. He very purposely constructed the ad to cause a stir. He chose to ignore copyright because my image somehow resonated with him for this; I suppose the idea is that his tech company is somehow a radical place to work. In this, he was very purposefully using my image to help brand his company. Top this off with his casual dismissal of my grievance and you may see why this is not a simple mistake.

Do you think his apology was genuine?
I really can’t say. I didn’t speak to him in person and tone is impossible in text form.

Do you think if he knew what the picture was from or anything about you, that he would still use it?
I’m obviously speculating, but he still seems cavalier about his breach of copyright law. He offered $500, not for past usage or restitution, but to be able to use it legally for the ad going forward. After I told him why that was not OK (see my 2nd letter), he sent a response:

"Thank you for taking the time to give me your full perspective on the situation. In case you missed my earlier communications I would like to make sure you're aware that I've already removed the image from the ad. Again I apologize for the oversight, as you can see I responded immediately to your request and did my best to rectify the situation.”

So offering to pay for it going forward is his “best” at rectifying the situation. This casual disregard of artist’s rights is not uncommon. I imagine if I was Lars from Metallica he would be a bit more responsive. With the current steamrolling of the Bay Area’s cultural heritage, I caught myself wondering if this is just an attitude that is endemic within tech culture, then realized that it is simply corporate culture. Tech companies have done a pretty good job selling us on the idea that they are different from regular corporate culture. Maybe they even believe it themselves.

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Is this kind of image appropriation a growing problem? Do you know of other artists that have had similar struggles?
I’m not sure about current appropriation cases. A copyright lawyer or California Lawyers for the Arts would be able to tell you about current cases. I can tell you that artists being taken advantage of is continuing problem. Whether it is low paying commercial work where you are "lucky to have a job in your chosen field," or art organizations that offer shows that don’t pay for shipping or provide a stipend for a "great opportunity," or the troubles surrounding wages and retention for adjunct art teachers, or the rising cost of tuition for an arts education. Students are coming out of schools today with an undergrad degree in painting and $80,000 of debt. Sometimes you want to take that opportunity or you can afford to pay that tuition, but at times you feel like you just have to do it. There is tremendous competition in the arts. I don’t know about students today, but I didn’t have any idea how hard it is to pay back even $10,000 as an artist. A lot of American society thinks being an artist is a way to be a slacker, it’s the opposite. Being an artist is a tough road filled with low wages and a lot of struggle. We could use a break once in a while.

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