How a “Sultry” Statue of Liberty Cost the U.S. Post Office More Than $3.5 Million

A sculptor was awarded millions in royalties after the USPS accidentally used an image of his Las Vegas replica on a 2010 postage stamp

Sultry Lady Liberty

Forever stamps may set you back 50 cents apiece these days, but that's nothing compared to what one particular stamp will cost the United States Postal Service (USPS). Tom McKay at Gizmodo reports that a judge has ordered the agency to pay a sculptor more than $3.5 million after it failed to secure his permission or pay him royalties for putting his replica Statue of Liberty on a stamp.

The mix-up happened in 2010, when the USPS printed a Forever stamp featuring a close-up of the Statue of Liberty’s face from Getty Images' stock photo collection. After 3.5 billion of the stamps were issued, a collector noticed that statue, which arrived in the New York Harbor 133 years ago this June, looked a little different than how he remembered, and he alerted the USPS that it had made a mistake.

That’s when the agency realized its screw-up. Instead of selecting an image of the Statue of Liberty gazing over New York Harbor, it had chosen an image of the Statue of Liberty replica standing outside the New York-New York hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal since the statue is in the public domain, and any identical replica of the statue would also be in the public domain, explains Isaac Kaplan at Artsy.

However, the Las Vegas version of Lady Liberty is not exactly the same as its New York inspiration. McKay reports that Robert S. Davidson, the sculptor of the Strip’s Liberty claimed in his copyright infringement lawsuit, filed in 2013, that his version “brought a new face to the iconic statue — a face which audiences found appeared more ‘fresh-faced,’ ‘sultry’ and ‘even sexier’ than the original.”

Kaplan reports in 2017 a judge allowed the case to move forward, and it concluded last week with a federal claims court judge ruling that the "Sexy Liberty" was, indeed, substantially different from the real McCoy, reports Cale Guthrie Weissman at Fast Company, awarding Davidson more than $3.5 million in royalties.

“We are satisfied that plaintiff succeeded in making the statue his own creation, particularly the face,” the judge wrote. “A comparison of the two faces unmistakably shows that they are different…Having determined that the face of plaintiff’s sculpture is distinct, original, and protected, we find that defendant’s use was infringing.

According to a 2013 article in the Washington Post by Lisa Rein, the expensive kerfluffle occured because the USPS went looking for a new Statue of Liberty image that was distinct from the many it has issued before. The close-up image of the replica design turned out to be so popular that, even after realizing they had used the wrong Liberty, the USPS continued to print the stamps, producing an estimated 4.9 billion prints, in total. A spokesperson in 2013 said that the USPS “would have selected this photograph anyway” if they had initially known it was a replica because the design was so popular, writes Rein. That statement made it difficult for the agency to claim it simply made a mistake, and led to charges in the lawsuit that they continued to infringe on Davidson’s copyright even after learning of their error.

This is not the only copyright infringement suit the USPS has faced in recent years. In 2015 a judge ruled it owed the sculptor of the 19 soldiers known as the Column in the Korean War Veterans Memorial $540,000 for using an unauthorized image of the statues on a 2003 stamp.

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