22-Aug, 03:55

18:03, August 01 60 0

2017-08-01 18:03:03
After a Frank Ocean Set, a Week of Big Sales and Copyright Questions

Frank Ocean gave a rare, intimate performance at Panorama Music Festival on Friday that enraptured his fans — and had some unexpected consequences that went far beyond music.

Four days later the event has raised questions around the issue of copyright in an era of viral sharing and what happens to a young, creative business when placed in the spotlight.

But in the beginning, everyone was just excited about his T-shirt.

Simple and white, the shirt asked, in black capital letters: “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?”

Twitter quickly discovered that it was produced by Green Box Shop, an online operation founded last year by Kayla Robinson, 18. On Saturday and Sunday the website received 5,500 orders over all (Ms. Robinson did not share specific figures for the T-shirt Mr. Ocean wore), compared with the 100 it would usually see. It seemed like a Cinderella story.

“My business started in a really small apartment,” Ms. Robinson said. “I was living with my mom. It was infested with roaches. I started by myself and later I hired some friends.” She moved to a warehouse in South Florida recently, and Mr. Ocean’s endorsement has been her business’s biggest unintended marketing coup to date. “It was so surreal,” she said. “I did not believe it until I saw photographic evidence.”

And that wasn’t even the first time the shirt — which comes in gold, pink, blue, white and tie-dye, is made of organic cotton and costs $18.99 — had gone viral on social media. In January, a user who goes by the handle @lustdad posted an image of himself in the T-shirt, garnering more than 87,000 retweets and nearly 191,000 likes.

Yet criticism was brewing as well. It turned out the quotation on the shirt originated from a tweet sent out in August 2015 by Brandon Male, 18, a student from North Syracuse, N.Y.

Mr. Male was frustrated that he had not been properly paid or credited for Green Box Shop’s use of his quote.

The first time he saw the shirt earlier this year Mr. Male said he had contacted Green Box Shop and was met with mostly dismissal. “They told me I needed to calm down and said they credited me on Instagram one time,” he said. “I ended up letting it slide after that.”

Ms. Robinson said she did not handle her company’s social media until recently and was not aware of Mr. Male’s requests or that he had written the quote. In fall 2016, “someone direct messaged us and said you should put this quote on a shirt,” she said. “They didn’t send me a screenshot or anything.”

Though other famous figures like Zendaya and Jessica Williams have endorsed Ms. Robinson’s designs, she said, “Frank Ocean was the biggest response in terms of sales.”

The response also inspired Mr. Male to start speaking up again about his original Twitter post. “I started tweeting about it, and a lot of my followers came to my defense,” he said. “And people who don’t follow me came to my defense, too.”

Christine E. Weller, an associate at Griesing Law who specializes in intellectual property and technology, said: “People will often take images they find online and reproduce them because they think they have the right to. But that’s not the case. It’s generally not permitted without the permission of the copyholder.”

Copyright is an opt-out system, she said, which means your intellectual property is yours unless you specifically allow others to use it (through the Creative Commons license, for example).

But there are fair-use exceptions that allow people to appropriate content for purposes like commentary, criticism or scholarship. If the result could be reasonably considered transformative, the appropriator is within his or her legal rights. Ms. Weller pointed to lawsuits that have been brought against the artist Richard Prince for his use of other artists’ work in a 2014 installation. Various courts have offered mixed judgments on the cases. “There are no black and white answers,” she said.

If someone uses another’s work for commercial purposes, however, it becomes much easier for the owner of the content to file a cease-and-desist order or to argue that compensation is necessary. Still, Ms. Weller added, “There’s an open question about whether a short, pithy tweet falls under copyright protection.” Her suggestion: When in doubt, reach out.

On Saturday, the day after Mr. Ocean’s concert, Ms. Robinson did — kind of.

She sent $100 to Mr. Male on Venmo. He said, “They threw me $100 and told me to go away.” He calculated that $100 was less than 1 percent of the revenue Green Box Shop had pulled in over two days. Green Box Shop also added a link to Mr. Male’s tweet on the product page.

“It was an impulsive decision,” Ms. Robinson said. “I hadn’t looked at the number of sales, and I wasn’t thinking about it portionwise. It does look like I was just throwing money at him to keep him quiet.”

Ms. Robinson said she called Mr. Male on Monday to apologize and set up a time to discuss numbers. “Just how I want to be credited for making the shirts, I get how he wants to be credited,” she said.

“Moving forward when people message me with shirt ideas, I should do more investigating,” she added. “It would be pretty irresponsible of me to just take it. Being a creator myself, people have copied my shirts before, I totally understand Brandon. Even if it’s a tweet, I have to respect that.”

And given the music industry’s history of questions regarding intellectual property and copyright, Mr. Ocean would probably understand as well.