140 characters may not seem like enough room to really say something of value. But if Kanye West is saying something, it can be worth a lot more than one may expect. Etsy seller “supervelma” has hand-stitched popular tweets from the rapper Kanye West onto fabric, framed them, and is currently selling them for $45 each on the online craft retailer Etsy. Understandably, West may be upset that someone else is profiting off of his hard-earned Twitter notoriety, but does he have a remedy?
Copyright is the traditional form of protection for works of art. Having a registered copyright can prevent others from reproducing the work, making a derivative piece of art based on your original work, or further diluting the value of your work by displaying it. West could argue a claim of copyright infringement, however he may encounter difficulty proving that a tweet can actually receive copyright protection. Many tweets simply state facts—which cannot be protected by copyrights—or link to news articles, whose headlines are generally found to be insufficiently creative to warrant copyright protection.
It is also debatable whether a tweet like, “Fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on” meets the de minimis requirement of creativity that a copyrighted work must have. Most copyright experts agree that there is not a bright line rule about whether tweets can gain copyright protection; a copyrightable tweet would certainly be the exception rather than the norm because of the observational nature of Twitter.
West—a professional wordsmith—might be able to make a stronger argument than most that his tweets go beyond mere observations, and are artistic expressions that might even make it into future albums. Viewing his tweets as strings of song lyrics may convince a judge that his entire Twitter history, or at least some of his more introspective and personal tweets, would warrant the protective shield of a copyright.
Even without a copyright, West would likely prevail because of the use of his name and “likeness”—in the form of a hand-stitched avatar on the cloth. Most states have held that people are entitled to a “right of publicity,” which recognizes a property right in the commercial value of a person’s identity. The commercial value of the name Kanye West, and the public image he has developed, is clearly what is driving the market for these embroideries. While “supervelma” does offer customers the chance to custom order whatever tweets they would like, West’s tweets are what gained the recognition of popular website Buzzfeed and undoubtedly drove up business.
West certainly has grounds to seek an injunction to stop “supervelma” from continuing to produce these items, and depending on the state statute regarding remedies he could also sue to recover for any damages and may even be able to get exemplary damages if a jury felt they were appropriate. Public figures should be aware that the same media making them more available to fans can also provide more material for appropriation, and it may be worthwhile to increase their monitoring of retail websites like Etsy, Amazon, and eBay for unauthorized products.