Can I knit elected officials (and possibly sell them)?
November 17, 2010 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Would I be putting myself at risk, legally, were I to knit elected officials in jest and sell them on Etsy? I wouldn't be doing anything distasteful or slandering, but merely making stuffed figurines of them, no more offensive than your typical political cartoon's caricature. I know there is a ton of Obama, Bush, Palin and Clinton merchandise out there that doesn't get much legal attention, but I'm thinking about also knitting famous governors and representatives, and perhaps former elected officials as well. Failing that, what about selling or giving away the patterns for free? I'm more interested in doing this as a design project than making a profit, but I'd like to sell them both to subsidize the hobby, and let people who want a plushie have one.
posted by mccarty.tim to Law & Government (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's my understanding (though IANAL) that as public figures, they are fair game for what you want to do. Plush with impunity.
posted by kindall at 6:59 AM on November 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


Even more than that, parody is free speech. So feel free to make your Palin as ridiculous as she is.
posted by scblackman at 7:08 AM on November 17, 2010


Generally fine but you should watch out for violating federal elections law.
posted by grobstein at 7:19 AM on November 17, 2010


For what it's worth, you could do this to anyone for profit or for free, since people cannot copyright themselves. It's slightly less clear whether you could copyright your pattern, but you could definitely give it away for free. The question for the latter would be if a pattern is a creative work; I'm inclined to say it is.

The only exception I can think of would be if someone is wearing clothes that could be considered a copyrighted work of art.
posted by saeculorum at 7:20 AM on November 17, 2010


It's perfectly fine. People make products all the time with public political figures on them. I remember there was a clock that ran backwards with Bill Clinton's face on it that I used to see when flipping past the old Rush Limbaugh TV show in the 90s.
posted by inturnaround at 7:20 AM on November 17, 2010


Would I be putting myself at risk, legally, were I to knit elected officials in jest and sell them on Etsy?

Not your lawyer sees no inherent problem with this.

you should watch out for violating federal elections law.

Um.. No.
posted by applemeat at 7:20 AM on November 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


people cannot copyright themselves

However, you can't use someone's likeness for profit without their consent. See, for example, Crispin Glover's lawsuit regarding the second Back to the Future movie. And that you need to get model releases when you take photos/video for commercial purposes. Those releases may specify that you can use their likeness once, in perpetuity, that you can use it forever with just one fee, or you need to pay fees for every use, etc.

On the other hand, lawyer husband assures me that public figures are exempt from this. Elected officials? Yeah, no problem.
posted by galadriel at 7:29 AM on November 17, 2010


Not a lawyer, not your lawyer, etc.

The elected official thing is likely irrelevant. You're talking here about right of publicity and you can no more use Barack Obama to promote your soda pop without his permission than you can use Mel Gibson. However when it comes to straight-up likenesses you may be on better ground with a politician.

My media law class was a year ago and our prof commented that this is an area where the law is highly variable - there's a lot of recent cases and some decisions at the circuit level, so you might be in trouble in 3-5 states but perfectly fine everywhere else. (This is one reason why cases go to the Supreme Court - to line up these varied opinions across multiple circuits) Video games and sports figures are a big driver of this.

Personally, if I were you, I'd do it if I was so inclined. The odds of an issue with small-scale Etsy sales are low and you're not likely to have produced 1,000,000 and suddenly find yourself unable to sell them. I also wouldn't personally worry about the odds of a sanction - I'd expect, at worst, a cease and desist letter. But honestly, unless the person sells much merchandise of themselves that they profit from or have someone they've licensed their likeness rights to, I wouldn't expect it.

But that's my ass, not yours, so you'll have to decide your own acceptance of risk.
posted by phearlez at 8:05 AM on November 17, 2010


I remember this being the topic of an assignment my Legal Research and Writing class my 1L year. I do not remember the answer to the question, and my grade in that class suggests that my answer might have been wrong, but the fact that it was an assignment suggests that the answer is not an easy yes or no. I do remember that the answer differed markedly depending on what state you were in.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:27 AM on November 17, 2010


I think Lion Brand was selling/giving away an Obama doll pattern and a McCain doll pattern back in 2008. If you check on Lion Brand's site or on Ravelry, you'll probably find some examples. This doesn't necessarily answer your question about whether you can sell them or not, but at least you'll know that other people have made things like these before.
posted by pised at 8:40 AM on November 17, 2010


However, you can't use someone's likeness for profit without their consent.

You're talking here about right of publicity and you can no more use Barack Obama to promote your soda pop without his permission than you can use Mel Gibson.

Not a lawyer not a lawyer not a lawyer, but my understanding from past work-related situations is that this does not apply to elected officials. Of course, Sarah Palin could be a stretch.

Also, I'm pretty sure this falls more into parody than publicity, as you're not asking "can I claim that Barack Obama shops at my yarn store when he does not?", but "can I sell a hand-knit Obama doll?"

Interesting example - a local home store sells Republican Party and Democratic Party glassware, with various politicians' faces printed on the products. I suppose it's possible that they had to approach 10-20 different prominent politicians from all over the country and on both sides of the aisle to get permission to make this product, but somehow I doubt that's the case.
posted by Sara C. at 10:11 AM on November 17, 2010


I have never heard of anyone who was an elected official claiming "right to exploitation" protection in the US either.

It seems like it would be an awfully hard case to bring, as the point of running for office is not supposed to be to make money on reproductions of one's image.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:01 PM on November 17, 2010


It must be legal, because there's a line of very popular pet toys in the likeness of various political figures. It's the "Doggy Hoots" line by Fat Cat, Inc. Here's the Obama one and there were several more. Quite the popular item at my aunt's pet store during the 2008 elections.
posted by ErikaB at 1:20 PM on November 17, 2010


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