New York Port Authority Claims Ownership Of Skyline Image in Latest Trademark Abuse


Warning: the image above may get you sued by the New York Port Authority. We have long discussed the insane evolution of trademark and copyright laws. Now, Fishs Eddy, a housewares store in Manhattan, has been hit with a cease-and-desist letter from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) over dishes that merely show the skyline of the city. The MTA claims that the common silhouette of the city includes some of its “assets” and that the store must destroy all of its products with the images and promise never again to sell images of the skyline. It is reminiscent of the English decision finding that taking photographs of London icons are also violations. Here the authority is claiming ownership to skyline images and 9-11 images even in silhouette.

I have long been a critic of growing copyright and trademark claims over things occurring in public or common phrases or terms. (For a prior column, click here). We have often discussed the abusive expansion of copyright and trademark laws. This includes common phrases, symbols, and images being claimed as private property. (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). (For a prior column, click here). This included recently a New York artist claiming that he holds the trademark to symbol π. —pi followed by a period—a design.

In this case, the target receives a threatening letter from on July 24th from Veronica Rodriguez, a lawyer for the authority, telling them that “Your use of the Port Authority’s assets on dinnerware and other items is of great concern to the Port Authority.” She then stated they must “destroy all materials, documents and other items bearing the assets.”

All the store is doing is selling two lines of goods — “212 New York Skyline” and “Bridge and Tunnel” that include cartoon like image of the twin towers, the new 1 World Trade Center and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. Rodriquez insisted that the store is “unfairly reaping a benefit from an association with the Port Authority and the attacks” of Sept. 11. She added that Fishs Eddy ceramic ware “interferes with the Port Authority’s control of its own reputation.”

In addition to be facially absurd to anyone outside of the draconian copyright and trademark fields, the store has been selling these items for 13 years. It is unclear why the authority waited 13 years to rouse itself over the “212” pattern or why it has chosen to go after an established merchant when the city is awash with unauthorized World Trade Center knickknacks. (Holland and Lincoln Tunnel souvenirs, maybe not so much.)

Erica Dumas, a spokeswoman for the authority, said that similar trademark enforcement efforts had been undertaken and that Fishs Eddy was not being singled out. She otherwise deferred to the letter.

Julie Gaines, the co-owner with her husband, David Lenovitz, is quoted in the New York Times as saying that in 1998 Tishman Speyer Properties and the Travelers Group, owners of the Chrysler Building, sent a similar letter regarding the image of the Chrysler Building.

We have previously discussed how President Obama has repeatedly yielded to the “copyright hawks” who have steadily increased the penalties for copyright and trademark violations, including criminal penalties. Despite the abuse of average citizens by thuggish law firms and prosecutors, the Obama Administration continues to support draconian measures against citizens. The result is that firms may routinely send out these thuggish threats and claim ownership to such things as the skyline of New York city. It is small business and average people who are being victimized because they do not have any comparable lobby in Congress. Instead, members and the White House eagerly line up to increase penalties and yield more power in the area.

It is also important to note that these threats have an impact on free speech as well as artistic expression.

Of course, the port authority is not just another private corporation and it is actively seeking to threaten a business over the use of a basic image of the city. It should be enough to rally all New Yorkers against the authority and demand not just changes but discipline for those who approve this action.

[NB: The image above is listed as “Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.”]

36 thoughts on “New York Port Authority Claims Ownership Of Skyline Image in Latest Trademark Abuse”

  1. Again a awaiting moderation sign. There are no bad words, no links, what is going on?

  2. Reblogged this on SiriusCoffee and commented:
    If the State can own the rain that falls from the sky, hits your roof, and eventually finds its way into the local sewer, then certainly they own the photons that reflect off the buildings, and stream into your camera lens!

    1. Are they going to charge fees for taking pictures of the skyline? It would be a money-maker with foreign tourists.

  3. One would think a municipal corporation such as the port authority charged with promoting commerce would actually support a small business rather than attacking it.

    1. Darren – as a quasi-governmental entity, they do not care about businesses big or small.

  4. Would not the citizens own this? Beings this is a government agency…

  5. Here’s a question… Can you ‘copyright’ ‘ something that is constantly changing????

  6. Just to aid to the confusion. If I own the Empire State Building and the Port Authority puts up a structure that conflicts with views of my building, can I sue for copyright infringement? This really could involve a lot of lawyers and lots of court time in NYC.

  7. Obama is kowtowing to the copyright hawks (Hollywood) because that is where a lot of his money is coming from. However, this is just silly.

  8. Let me see if I understand the relevant law…

    In the fall of 1953, my parents, my brother, and I made an educational trip to the east coast, including to New York City, and I took some photographs from the outdoor observation deck of the Empire State Building, in which parts of the New York City skyline are pictured.

    Now I learn that the pictures I took in 1953 are violations of the MTA copyright on any depiction of any form whatsoever of the New York City skyline?

    So, any picture of the New York City skyline that became public domain before 1923 has become a copyright violation, ex post facto?

    The magnificent wonderment of inextricably false implicit premises established as true fact by legislative/judicial fiat?

  9. “Dredd
    They have been drinking too much port.
    Or water from Toledo.

  10. Is this the same exact “copyrighted” image? If it is, then it is a blatant infringement. However, taking the same picture that shows the same exact landscape should not be considered an infringement. If I was Fishs Eddy I would go up into a building somewhere (or a plane) and take the same picture myself, and replace the other one with my own.

    It is absurd for the Port Authority to believe that they have a monopoly on what pictures can be taken and at what angles, etc., because it may include their buildings. They don’t own the NYC skyline and the right for representations of it in image form (except for ones they took themselves.)

    Can they prove that Fish Eddys usage of the image is causing them a financial hardship? Of course using a copyrighted image without permission for financial gain is a big no-no. This instance, however, is a clear example of a powerful organization trying to exhort pressure over the little guy.

    It’s just tasteless and makes the Port Authority look like a bully.

  11. NYC has been the home for decades of probably the best photographers in the world. They must be sick to their stomachs.

  12. The New York Port Authority’s letter to Fishs Eddy may be absurd, but the image at the top of this blog *is* copyrighted.

  13. OT but it’s still NYC where sleeping while black.has augmented walking while black as a crime.

  14. Does this mean I have to destroy the photos I took on my flight down the Hudson in a bi-plane? Or only if I try to sell prints?

  15. Oh please! Does the New York Port Authority plan to pay a royalty to every building owner and architect of the buildings silhouetted in the photograph? And since you can see New Jersey in the background, does Governor Christie also get a cut?

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