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Apparel Company Counters Piracy Accusation with Bogus Claim of Copyright Infringement

Posted by Rebecca Blake on December 28, 2015

Canadian illustrator Eric Kim reported that his illustration of pro wrestler Randy “The Macho Man” Savage was pirated by apparel company Freeze Central Mills Inc. In October, Kim discovered that Freeze had taken his artwork, flipped it, erased part of the image, and printed it on red sweatshirts with a holiday message. Although the sweatshirt image has been altered to appear as if it were created from cross-stitch embroidery, the illustration was clearly traced from Kim’s original. The sweatshirt was sold by 80s Tees in time for the 2015 holiday season.

Kim immediately took action, contacting Freeze Central Mills through his lawyer, and requesting a fee of $1,500 for the use of his image, of which $1,000 would have gone to legal fees. According to Kim, Freeze returned an offer of $350, a paltry sum. (Kim estimates that 1,440 sweatshirts were sold, generating $20,106 in income for Freeze.) The website which sold the sweatshirt, 80sTees, was far more accommodating to Kim, removing the shirt from sales, and adding Kim’s credit line and a link to his website. 

What is even more troubling about Freeze’s response to Kim is that they told him that he “was in trouble with the WWE (Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment) for even making the image” since he was violating the copyright of the image. If Kim’s recounting is accurate, Freeze is incorrect on several counts. Randy “The Macho Man” Savage was the ring name of the wrestler, Randy Mario Poffo, who developed the character while wrestling for the Worldwide Wrestling Foundation (WWF). WWE  doesn’t hold the copyright to the character. While the character has been trademarked by Savage’s wife (the wrestler died in 2011), the trademark specifically covers action figures and accessories. 

Kim might have concerns should his image violate Savage’s (or his estate’s) right of publicity. However, right of publicity generally permits individuals to control the commercial use of their images. Kim created his illustration and posted it in his portfolio to showcase his skills; he never intended to market the image commercially. Additionally, right of publicity is not covered by federal statute, but is controlled by state law, and varies widely. (For more information on right of publicity, check out attorney Robert Clarida’s article on the topic on our Tools + Resources page.)

The irony of Freeze’s response to Kim is that the company, not Kim, sought to profit from the image. If the company was truly concerned with legalities, their marketing team would have done due diligence to ensure that using the image didn’t violate intellectual property or publicity rights. In fact, Freeze appears to have a history of violating trademarks. In February of 2015, the company was found to have violated trademark law in marketing goods bearing Bob Marley’s image. And in August, Adidas filed a lawsuit that accuses Freeze of violating their three-stripes trademark. In light of their history of trademark violation, Freeze’s response to Kim appears to be a blatant (and somewhat hypocritical) attempt to deflect the illustrator by raising bogus fears of copyright infringement.

Below: Eric Kim’s comparison of his illustration (left) and the Freeze sweatshirt. (© Eric Kim, and not the WWE! Used with permission of the artist.)

Illustration of Randy

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