The Promise & The Pitfalls of Team Pete’s Participatory Brand Platform
How overzealous (and erroneous) copyright enforcement tramples fair use and is a bad look for progressive politics
Dear Pete (and Team),
I don’t think we have ever met. We were a couple of years apart at Harvard, and we have some friends in common. I don’t know how I feel about your politics yet, but I support your ambition as a millennial making a difference and love you and your husband’s courage to kiss in front of the cameras and the world.
I know you are busy, so I’ll get to the point.
As a design practitioner and educator, I’m loving what your team has done with your newly revealed dynamic, interactive, participatory brand system. It’s all very new power. Cool.
I’m also digging your lettering designs for both my home state of Arizona and my adopted home state of New York. They really capture the spirit of both places that I love.
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What I’m less thrilled about is how your team issued a copyright infringement complaint against a T-shirt design that I posted on Zazzle, a “print your own merchandise site.”
Here is my design that Zazzle took down after a complaint by your campaign team:
Here is a screenshot of the email that I received from Zazzle about your team’s copyright complaint against my design.
I don’t know if it’s the algorithms, the lawyers, or some overzealous line workers, but someone needs to stand down.
I don’t have a beef with Zazzle. I have worked with them for years, and I understand that they are just trying to keep from being sued by copyright owners like you. Better safe than sorry. I get it.
But I didn’t violate your copyright!
My T-shirt design was based on a post that I made on Facebook pointing out the frequency of names that start with the letter “B” among the self-identified male Democratic presidential candidates. It was a joke among friends, which I escalated to T-shirt design. Because, you know, graphic designers are going to graphic design.
Using your name, as well as the names of some of your competition is fair use. I designed my shirt well before your new brand launch. The text of the T-shirt design is a commentary on current political events and can be interpreted as parody.
I’m undecided about you as a candidate. You seem like a nice guy, but making aggressive copyright claims on fair use design work is not going to make you any friends or win you my vote.
And if you and your team are going to be playing fast and loose with copyright law, can you be trusted with the Constitution or the nuclear codes?
Ok, maybe that’s a little over-dramatic. I’m willing to give you and your team the benefit of the doubt. Be a leader. Look into it. Fix it. With humans. Not algorithms.
Imagine if my shirt had been critical of you as a candidate (or one day as President), and your team’s copyright complaint resulted in the takedown of my design. Is abusing copyright law to silence parody or political criticism a good look for your progressive brand or campaign? What kind of precedent do you want to set?
Believe me, I have no interest in either call-out culture or the circular firing squad of social justice grievances. I want a Democrat in the White House in 2020. If your name ends up on that ballot, I will support you.
But in the meantime, I am also going to stand up for my principles, the very principles of freedom that you swore an oath and bore arms to protect. Let’s make this a teachable moment.
I sent an email to your team. You know where to find me. I eagerly await a response.
Maybe this is just a misunderstanding. But online platforms have become an extension of the public square. We must police them fairly while protecting rights and freedoms. And that includes the freedom to make dumb political T-shirt designs within the bounds of fair use.
Your team fell short this time, but let’s do better. Together.
In the meantime, since your team objects to my use of your name, here’s my new B-Bro T-shirt design.
UPDATE: April 16, 2019, 5 pm
I still haven’t heard from Team Pete about this issue, but Zazzle has taken down the second version of my design too. I have appealed this decision to Zazzle and to the Buttigieg campaign.
In the meantime, I reassert that my designs are fair use and as the designer, I hold the copyright to them. However, I am now releasing them to the public domain under CC0 for anybody to download and use.
UPDATE: April 17, 2019, 2:15 am
I have moved the design over to Threadless. You can order whatever merch you want here. Since this whole thing is about principles and not profit, I will donate all the money I get from sales to non-profits that promote freedom of expression and digital rights.
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UPDATE: April 19, 2019, 2:00 pm
Zazzle accepted my appeal and reversed their decision to takedown my 2nd B-Bro t-shirt design.
Someone from Pete’s team also reached out to apologize and assure me that they are working to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.