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Veteran photographer files infringement claim against artist who painted a ‘replica’ of her work

Cheryl Miller, a veteran Massachusetts photographer, filed an infringement claim against a New York artist with the Copyright Claims Board, a new federal tribunal that is said to have the potential to “revolutionize” how artists confront copyright violations.

The artwork in question is the painting by Nate Ladson, which Miller believes is a replica of her more than 4-decade-old photograph titled “Sunglass Corner.” Ladson’s painting was posted on Facebook and has been featured in a few Manhattan art exhibitions. At first glance, it cannot be denied that it practically mirrors the veteran’s photograph.

Sunglass Corner by Cheryl Miller
via Cheryl Miller / Copyright Claims Board
Painting by Nate Ladson
via Nate Ladson

Miller’s work is a black-and-white photograph taken in Manhattan’s Harlem area, which features four old Black men standing in front of a store with the words of the artwork’s title written on the store’s window. She claims that the publication and exhibition of her shot helped boost her 40–year-long career. It was also reported that the individual limited edition prints were sold for more than $1,500 to collectors.

In his defense, Ladson has stated that he based his painting on an old photograph from the book “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968,” which was published in year 1969.

However, contrary to his claims, the Daily News reports that images that resemble Miller’s works do not appear anywhere in the 258-page book from which he drew his inspiration.

Miller filed the claim under the CCB tribunal that was established by the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act of 2020  to allow creators a small claims court-style system to challenge copyright violations. The wrongful activities mentioned in Miller’s complaint included the creation of “a derivative work.”

Furthermore, Miller has sought $30,000 in damages, the highest amount that may be imposed by the board.
“As a photographer for over 40 years, ‘Sunglass Corner’ is my signature photographic piece. It is the image that I am known for and is easily recognizable as my work,” Miller stated.

“Reproducing the image cheapens and devalues it tremendously. I’ve invested years, time and money honing my craft and skill as a self-taught photographer,” she added.

Miller shared that this is not the first case of unauthorized reproduction of her “Sunglass Corner” photo. In 2002, the artist who copied the photo had to destroy all the replicas and forfeit all his earnings from the copies.

The CCB just started hearing cases in June, and Miller’s is one of the first that has garnered significant media attention. Should Miller win, her case could serve as an example of the three-member tribunal’s effectiveness in helping small artists pursue reparations after copyright infringement. On the other hand, If Ladson prevails in his defense, it could give independent artists the confidence to utilize photographs as inspiration without worrying about possible legal consequences.

Whatever the ruling may be, this lawsuit may establish clearer guidelines on how emerging artists should use other’s photographs as work references.

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