Sunday, November 16, 2008

Your houseboat, my sculpture

Dear Rich: I have a question. A book was recently published featuring houseboats from my area. A photo of my houseboat is in the book. I know the photographer and told her verbally that I did not want a photo of my boat used commercially or in a book. She used it anyway. Is there any way to take legal action against her? I am very upset! I consider my boat to be a sculpture.  I'm so glad you asked. The short answer to your question is "no." As you are probably aware from reading the Dear Rich column, it's not a violation of copyright law to photograph architecture (even aquatic architecture) that is publicly viewable. And thanks to Batman, that's true even if those buildings are protected by architectural copyright and contain separately protectable sculptural elements.
As aesthetically pleasing as your home may be, it's not likely to be held as copyrightable sculpture. Costume designers took a similar approach a few decades ago -- they characterized their designs as "soft sculptures" -- in a failed attempt to get around the government's refusal to register clothing designs. The Dear Rich staff happens to be big fans of the creative and eclectic houseboat community and wish you the best in your floating home. But unless someone: (1) takes a photo that invades your privacy -- for example, someone using a telephoto lens peers into your home and captures you and your family; (2) trespasses and damages your houseboat-- for example, someone sets it on fire for a reality TV show; or (3) uses photos of your home as part of a movie's set (or similar commercial endorsement) --  they're probably not violating the law.