Among the items San Francisco gallery and store Park Life stocked for holiday gifts was that most innocent of objects — a bookend in the shape of a balloon dog, made by a company based in Toronto. But right before Christmas, Park Life co-owner Jamie Alexander received an unusual Christmas present.
Lawyers for artist Jeff Koons sent a letter asking Park Life to stop selling and advertising the balloon dog bookends, return them to some mutually agreed upon address, tell Koons how many have been sold and disclose the maker of said bookends — a fact, Alexander said, that could easily be found via Google.
Park Life's balloon dog bookends, left, resemble Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog," right (Credit: Courtesy photos)
Koons staked his claim on one of his most famous projects from the past few years, the shiny and large "Balloon Dog," which was shown in New York and France, among other places.
Artists, of course, have every reason to protect their rights, but this legal threat brings up an interesting question: Can one copyright a balloon animal? And how does an artist who has been repeatedly sued for inappropriately using others' copyrighted images get off attacking Park Life?
Alexander pulled the bookends from the store (and its website) but doesn't agree with the cease-and-desist order. "This man can't own something that existed before him," Alexander said.
The main issue in artist copyright, according to San Francisco lawyer Simon Frankel of Covington & Burling LLP, a firm not attached to the case, is the protection of individual expression. On the one hand, the balloon dog bookend is unquestionably like Koons' "Balloon Dog"; on the other, they both look like any children's birthday party balloon animal.
"The idea that Jeff Koons would have an exclusive right to make objects in the shape of a balloon dog simply because he made one is surprising and inconsistent … with copyright law," said Frankel, noting that by that logic, Koons could also pursue legal action against balloon artists everywhere.
The bookend's manufacturer, imm Living, declined to comment beyond stating it would fight the cease-and-desist letter, which it also received. The company's goods are sold in more than 700 stores in the United States.
Alexander said Park Life isn't planning any legal action, having sold only a handful of the objects for $30 each, and awaits word from imm Living.
"The thing is, Jeff Koons has based his whole career on appropriating pop culture," he said. "That's fine, but don't sue someone else for doing the same thing."