If Corporate America Steals Your Creative Work, These Hipster Lawyers Stop Them
Scott Burroughs, of Venice law firm Doniger/Burroughs, helps creatives protect their art, design and writing when corporations copy it.
Photo by Danny Liao
It's Monday morning in L.A.'s Fashion District and Jocelyn Mayer is sitting in her ninth-story office bouncing her baby with one hand as she scrolls through her phone and sends off emails with the other. Mayer is the owner and founder of Revolve Textiles. Clad all in black with a loose ponytail, the 34-year-old is surrounded by swatches and strips of bright fabrics. She's visibly agitated, having learned hours earlier that one of her designs has — yet again, she says — been stolen by a major retailer.
"I feel like my house got robbed," she says. "Like I was totally violated."
Mayer's job is to scour the world, from China to Paris, looking for covetable prints handcrafted by artists. She buys their designs and gets the art copyrighted, so it's exclusive to Revolve Textiles. She then sells the intricate patterns and prints to clothing brands. Eventually, a print sold to her by the artisan who created it in Asia or Europe ends up in Los Angeles, New York or Dallas — on shirts, dresses and skirts sold in chains such as Macy's and Anthropologie.
Mayer started her company pre-motherhood in 2007. She got this far working seven days a week, sitting on the floor of her home with her husband, stapling together swatches to be sent to potential buyers. Mayer's operation is all-consuming, but she's graduated to an office at L.A. Apparel Mart and has one employee.
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Her mission for success: "One print is for one client," she says. "That's why people will come to me, because they know they're not going to see it all over."
So it's a major problem when the exclusive designs Mayer owns are duplicated. She used to "roll over" to the big brands that took her designs without payment or permission, lacking the money to fight.
"They have endless money and I didn't," she explains. That all changed when she met two Venice lawyers who've made a business of championing underdogs in the city's growing population of creative entrepreneurs: Scott Burroughs, 36, and Stephen Doniger, 43.
Burroughs and Doniger have represented artists, designers, photographers, writers and other creatives in more than 1,000 cases in the last decade.
They have an approach to copyright cases that makes them somewhat unusual: They often work on contingency, meaning they don't get paid unless the client wins — commonly in a settlement — which allows artists and entrepreneurs to pursue legal action they otherwise couldn't afford. Burroughs says copyright infringement cases can be drawn out, and when they go all the way through trial can cost up to $3 million.
"Joey working out of his garage down in Venice, he probably doesn't have the lawyers on retainer and the litigation plans to go after these companies," Burroughs says.
Doniger/Burroughs have successfully taken on HBO, Nordstrom, Walmart and Forever 21 using the federal Copyright Act, established to protect artists and entrepreneurs from having their materials reproduced without payment or permission.
"We've been really fortunate to find ourselves as the protectors of a law that is designed to make us richer as a society," Doniger says. "There's this view that we're richer when more people are creating more artwork."
The eight-attorney Venice firm tackles these cases in a Rose Avenue office that looks more like an artist's studio. It's actually a repurposed trophy factory with concrete floors, exposed brick — and art created by clients. Burroughs rides his bike to work.
Two of their cases led to new law, helping establish what qualifies as "substantial similarity" between artworks and clarifying registration rules with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Now they're going for a hat trick, filing a lawsuit in March against website Elite Daily.
Like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, Elite Daily publishes clickable lists, catchy photographs and dramatic headlines to attract readers. Doniger/Burroughs is suing Elite Daily for alleged copyright infringement on behalf of photojournalist Peter Menzel, an acclaimed Napa Valley photographer whose work is seen in National Geographic, Time and his own books.
Last year, Elite Daily's site allegedly published at least 25 photographs from Menzel's book, What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets, according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by Doniger/Burroughs. The suit also claims Elite Daily sometimes cropped out Menzel's copyright information.
Elite Daily's attorney, Ashley Kissinger, had no comment. In May, Elite Daily denied wrongdoing.
Burroughs, in an email to the Weekly, says the case has implications beyond Elite Daily, because it could set legal precedent for similar cases. "If this business model is left unchallenged," he says, "the ability of artists to profit from their work will be greatly diminished, and only the richest or most corporate-backed artists will be able to create new content."
L.A. entertainment lawyer and UCLA adjunct law professor Ken Basin agrees that the Menzel case is significant and says, "It's about time." He calls clickbait sites "significant social forces" and moneymakers that rose to prominence "in a pretty Wild West–like legal context." Technology has moved faster than copyright law, Basin says, and some sites repackage copyrighted material and creative work without sharing the revenue they generate.
Although previous lawsuits have addressed copyright infringement on news aggregation sites, Menzel's case has the potential to "finally interpret and apply long-standing legal principles" to high-profile clickbait sites, Basin says.
It's not often that lawyers accept copyright cases on contingency. Litigation can drag on, and success can mean little financial payoff, says San Diego attorney John Haller. Haller is familiar with the two Venice attorneys because he faced Doniger in a copyright case. "I really didn't like him — he knew what he was doing," Haller says. "And it's seldom you run into someone who knows what they're doing."
Later, Haller referred foreign correspondent Eric Watkins to his former foes at Doniger/Burroughs. Watkins had worked in Yemen beginning in 1989, where he saw the birth of al-Qaida, and was shot at and threatened with death. He spent years working pre-Internet, phoning in his stories to a "copy taker."
Watkins didn't think about copyrighting his work — he was busy not getting limbs blown off. "I'm not the kind of guy in the back lines with his feet up on his desk and twiddling his thumbs," he says. "I'm a frontline journalist."
But years later, Watkins found that his writing had been widely published online without his permission. Doniger/Burroughs helped him sue Dow Jones, which owns The Wall Street Journal, and the Factiva database. Although Watkins' settlement is confidential, the self-described "long-in-the-tooth" reporter says it was never about money.
"I really don't give a shit about how much I'm going to get out of this — for me, it's about self-respect," he explains.
But others want, and win, the money.
Last year a jury awarded $1.04 million — $650,000 to Novelty Textile Inc. and $390,000 in attorneys' fees to Doniger/Burroughs — in a case against the clothing chain Wet Seal, according to Burroughs. The duo has sued another chain, Forever 21, numerous times, and "amicably settled" all cases.
In her trendy downtown office, Revolve Textile's Mayer is firmly behind using good old-fashioned litigation to protect her turf.
"I put in so much effort, and this is all I do all day," Mayer says. "I think about prints, I think about my clients. And I try to connect it and make a business. And pay my mortgage — and feed my family."
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