The concept of what constitutes a derivative work seems to elude far too many courts, particularly in the photography context. In Ets-Hokin v. Skky Spirits, Inc., 225 F.3d 1068 (9th Cir. 2000), a photograph of a vodka bottle was taken for use in an advertisement. The district court had held that the bottle depicted in the photograph was a “preexisting work,” and thus the photograph was “based on” that work and was therefore a derivative work. Rather than dismiss this shockingly wrong conclusion on the basis of the plain words of the statute, the court of appeals went off on an irrelevant inquiry: Whether the object depicted in the photograph (the vodka bottle) was copyrightable. According to the court of appeals, if it was, the photograph was a derivative work; if not, the photograph was not a derivative work. In order to determine whether the bottle photographed was copyrightable, the court examined it as the design of a useful article, ultimately rejecting protection for the bottle and therefore upholding copyright in the photograph as a nonderivative work.
Photographs of other objects are not derivative works of those objects. First, a photograph of an object is not “based on” that object: It is a mere depiction of it. Second, even if one were to find that a photograph of an object is based on that “preexisting work” within the meaning of the definition of “derivative work” in Section 101, such a photograph must still “recast, transform, or adapt” the authorship in the preexisting work to be considered a derivative work. Such recasting, transformation, or adaptation does not occur in a photograph of an object, even copyrighted objects. What makes a derivative work a derivative work is the contribution of changes in the actual authorship of the preexisting work, not a mere depiction of that work.
Fortunately, Judge William H. Pauley III of the Southern District of New York set matters straight in SHL Imaging, Inc. v. Artisan House, Inc., 117 F. Supp. 2d 301 (S.D. N.Y. 2000). Judge Pauley rightly focused on the requirement of recasting, transformation, or adaptation, noting: “A photograph of Jeff Koons's ‘Puppy’ sculpture in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center merely depicts that sculpture; it does not recast, transform, or adapt Koons's sculptural authorship. In short, the authorship of the photographic work is entirely different and separate from the authorship of the sculpture
Now a district court in Illinois has returned to the Ets-Hokins approach,
Schrock v. Learning Curve Intern., Inc., 2008 WL 224280
(N.D.Ill., January 29, 2008). In Schrock, defendants hired plaintiff photographer to take pictures of hundreds of toys for use in marketing. There surprisingly was no work for hire or transfer, but instead a license with usage restrictions, which the photographer alleged had been violated. Defendants alleged the photographs were unauthorized derivative works of their toys, and regrettably the court agreed:
Schrock's photographs are product photographs-depictions of Thomas & Friends toys. Such depictions portray the three dimensional toy in two dimensions. In the words of Section 101, such photographs “recast, transform[ ] or adapt [ ]” the preexisting three dimensional toy into another medium, thus creating a derivative work “based upon” the preexisting work. Such photographs are no less derivative works than are three dimensional embodiments of two dimensional drawings (e.g., a guitar created to embody a written symbol, as in Pickett v. Prince, 207 F.3d 402 (7th Cir.2000), or porcelain dolls fashioned to embody Norman Rockwell illustrations, as in Saturday Evening Post, 816 F.2d at 1193). In sum, Schrock's photographs are derivative works of the copyrightable toys that they portray.
The court then widened its destructive trip through basic principles of copyright law by holding that there was no original derivative authorship based on the Seventh Circuit’s widely criticized Gracen opinion. In short it was a windy, blustery day in Chicago.