Former Student Sues Artist’s Heirs For The Right To Include Copyrighted Artwork In Master’s Thesis
Solomon v. O’Connor, 17-cv-1011 (D. Mass.)
By Tyron Jensen
On January 23, Robert Solomon filed a complaint for declaratory judgment against Gwen, James, and Robert O’Connor. The O’Connors are the niece and nephews of the late artist Joseph Stapleton and inherited various drawings created by Stapleton. While he was a graduate student at Tufts University, Solomon—a protégé of Stapleton—decided to write his master’s thesis paper and a potential book covering the life and work of his mentor. The O’Connors provided Solomon full access to thousands of Stapleton’s drawings for the purpose of preparing his thesis and manuscript. After a disagreement over editorial control of the works, Solomon alleges that James O’Connor purported to exercise his copyrights in the Stapleton drawings and refused permission for Solomon to include them in his thesis and manuscript. Solomon seeks a declaratory judgment of non-infringement of copyright.
Solomon sought permission from Gwen and James O’Connor, who were in possession of the Stapleton drawings, to use the artwork in his thesis and manuscript. In response to this request, the O’Connor’s personally delivered all of the Stapleton drawings to Solomon’s residence. Solomon alleges that the O’Connors “placed no limit on [Solomon’s] access to, or reproduction or other use of, the Stapleton Drawings . . . They did not even communicate a limit on the amount of time [Solomon] could retain possession of the Stapleton Drawings, before returning them.” Therefore, Solomon contends that he was given an implied, if not express, license to reproduce, display, distribute and create derivative images of the Stapleton drawings.
Solomon alleges that, in reliance upon this license, he “spent numerous hours cataloging, studying, imaging and analyzing the Stapleton Drawings” over the next two years. Solomon completed a draft of his thesis paper and made progress on the manuscript he hoped to publish.
Prior to submitting his thesis, Solomon contends that James O’Connor demanded to review the completed thesis and any manuscript prior to publication. Solomon denied this request. According to the complaint, O’Connor then asserted his copyright interest in the Stapleton drawings and refused permission for Solomon to include them in his thesis and manuscript. As a result, Solomon did not submit his completed thesis.
Solomon’s complaint is seeking: (1) a declaratory judgment for non-infringement based on license; (2) a declaratory judgment for non-infringement based on fair use; and (3) a declaratory judgment of abandonment and transfer of ownership.