Elon Musk’s rift with ‘farting unicorn’ artist highlights copyright issues

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You probably didn’t expect to see “farting unicorn” and “Elon Musk”
together in headlines—but a recent copyright argument accomplished the

The headlines were published after Tom Edwards, a potter in Colorado who
makes “Wallyware,” accused Musk of using his artwork without permission or

ABC Denver7 reported:

In 2017, Musk tweeted a photo that has now been deleted that showed an
updated Tesla operating system. The system known as the ‘sketch pad’ had a
hidden design very identical to Edwards’ unicorn that could be found by
pressing the ‘T’ button three times.


Musk tweeted the photo of Tesla’s sketch pad in March 2017. One month
prior, Musk tweeted an image of Edward’s mug along with the text:
“Rainbows, unicorns and electric cars.” Musk replied to his post with
another tweet that read, “Maybe my favorite mug ever.”


The mug features a unicorn releasing gas into a funnel that is connected to
an electric car. The back of the mug read, “Electric cars are good for the
environment because electricity comes from magic.”


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Though Edwards appreciated a jump in mug sales after Musks’ tweets of his
pottery, he sought legal advice after seeing his design used in Tesla’s
operating system.

The Guardian

The 61-year-old artist was going to let it go until he learned the image
was also appearing in Tesla’s operating system as a small icon – and that
the company had even used it in a Christmas message.

“It’s part of their branding now,” Edwards said in an interview. “I love
the fact that it’s in the cars, but I just want them to do the right thing
and pay me adequately for it. Elon Musk
can be a hero for standing up for artists’ rights.”

ABC Denver7 reported:

“It’s a David versus Goliath kind of thing,” Edwards said. “He put a
software upgrade in the automobiles that featured my design. At first I
found it flattering, but then immediately recognized it was copyright
infringement. But I didn’t do anything. I mean, how do you fight a company
like that? But then I hired a lawyer.”

Fast forward to 14 months later. Edward’s attorney sent Tesla a
cease-and-desist letter, which they dubbed an “invitation” to reach a
mutually beneficial agreement to use the design.

The Guardian

So on 23 May, Edwards’ lawyer, Tim Atkinson, sent a letter to Tesla’s
general counsel, with the subject line: The Power of Magic. The note said
it was “not a cease and desist”, but an “invitation for all parties to
continue to benefit from the whimsical, and amazingly spot on piece of
imagery my client created in 2010, which now appropriately finds a home in
the operating system of the magical vehicles your company produces”.

The letter said the image grew out of Edwards’ “admiration” for sustainable
technologies and the work of “visionaries like Mr Musk”, adding that the
letter was not meant to be a “shakedown” or “outrageous monetary demand”,
but was seeking a “discussion” and a “mutual decision”.

Tesla has not yet responded to the letter. The story gained momentum
recently after Edwards’ daughter, a Seattle musician whose stage and band
name is “Lisa Prank,” tweeted the story and tagged Musk:

Musk responded to Prank with a since-deleted tweet that read:

I think Nik


did an illustration with Tesla sketch pad Easter egg similar to mug pic
that I posted. Was chosen randomly by software team as a joke (they didn’t
tell me in advance) as an example of the hidden feature. We can change it
to something else if your Dad wants.


Prank responded to Musk, accusing Tesla of “using [Edwards’] creative
property for a year without credit or compensation,” to which Musk replied,
saying he’d asked his team to use a different image going forward.

“Was actually someone else’s drawing of a unicorn on hidden Tesla sketch
pad app & we gained no financial benefit,” Musk tweeted. “He can sue
for money if he wants, but that’s kinda lame. If anything, this attention
increased his mug sales.”

Shortly after the story made headlines in publications includingThe Guardian, Mashable, Business Insider and Newsweek, Musk deleted all of his responses to Prank, along with
his tweets of Edwards’ mug and the artwork on Tesla’s sketch pad.

Musk also deleted his tweeted response to The Guardian’s coverage
of the story, calling the article “bs in every possible way” and claiming
that he offered Edwards twice to pay him for his art. Edwards denied being

Aside from the cease-and-desist, Edwards responded
by altering the description of his farting unicorn mug
in his online store. It now reads:

This is Elon Musk’s favorite mug! Back in February 2017,
he tweeted about it
and we received orders from all over the world. A couple of months later,
he “borrowed” my design
to pitch a new sketch pad software upgrade for the Tesla cars.
I got some nice press out of it
and sold a bunch more mugs. I joked about how it would be nice if he would
pay me for my artwork by giving me a new car, but this has yet to happen.

Edwards also created a bowl that reads, “Don’t be a fart. Don’t steal art” along with additional mugs that depict Musk holding a rope around the
unicorn’s neck. Those mugs have the text: “Tesla stole my unicorn.”

For artists and designers, the situation highlights an issue that can
quickly surface in today’s digital age. Though there can be protection
under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, creators still have to scour
the internet for potential trademark infringement, then file claims and/or

Kuow.org reported:

Eugene Beliy, an entertainment and intellectual property attorney based in
Seattle, says that in cases of copyright, the rights holders have to
enforce their rights. The biggest deterrent to doing that, though, is
usually money.

“Musk is saying ‘come sue me’ knowing full well that it’s impractical for
the artist to follow through on a full litigation, even if they have a
pretty clear-cut case,” said Beliy.

For PR and marketing pros, the situation shows a grey area of image use and
branding. To protect your brand, however, use caution.
DMCA fines can quickly become costly, and even if an artist won’t take you to court for using an image without
permission, your organization can quickly make headlines for all the wrong

For Musk and Tesla, this copyright spat is a small risk in comparison to
recent crises that have dinged the organization’s reputation. Avoiding negative PR in the first place (start with this copyright primer) can more quickly and effectively bolster your image, however—no
permission necessary.

(Image via)

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