Min's Blog

Reasons to Love New York: The Irina Controversy in Project Runway

December 16th, 2009 · 10 Comments

My roommate Janet is OBSESSED with the show Project Runway and follows the modeling world very closely. One day she was enthusiastically talking to me about the latest episode, with which I unfortunately do not have much fascination; but she mentioned something that immediately caught my interest: some potential winner of the season is in a controversy involving copyright infringement. I snapped my finger–this is going to be the topic of my third post here!

After I did some research on this case, I learnt that Irina Shabayeva, one of the competing  fashion designers on Project Runway, got herself into copyright infringement controversy twice. The first time, she put the Coney Island image on her T-shirt and was told by the New York Magazine that the image was trademarked. She had to back out since the magazine has the copyright. Here are the trademarked image and her T-shirt design:


Her design does differ from the original, trademarked Coney Island image. The original is a photograph, whereas Irina’s is a piece of art. This is similar to the Shepard Fairey case that I talked about in the first post, yet there is a big difference. Shepard Fairey merely used the outline of the photograph and filled it with broad, bright strokes of color, so that his image looks so different from the original one that it can count as “transformative”. In this case, however, Irina just “transcribed” the trademarked image into art and added some background. The two images look essentially the same, and her work does not seek to convey a certain message. She did add a caption, and by zooming in multiple times on that image, I found that she misspelled “Coney” as “Conney”. Later I found that other commenters also pointed out this interesting fact.

The second controversy arose as she copied the whole chunk of New York Magazine’s (again?) article “Reasons to Love New York” on her new shirt.

Irina 1

After pressing Ctrl + a couple of times to zoom in, I can finally make out some sentences on her shirt:

“Because people will still do crazy things to live here.”

“Because just when you take the Empire State Building for granted, it seduces you again.”

Copying an excerpt from  a novel for book review is perfectly acceptable, but copying the entirety of a copyrighted article without first obtaining permission is illegal. According to the third guideline, determination of fair use should take into account “the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.” In this case, the designer blatantly violates this guideline as she directly copies the whole thing onto her shirt.

The only thing that differentiates it from a “regular” copyright infringement is the medium: instead of copying the whole thing into a book, she put it on the shirt. Regardless, she did not change anything–she did not criticize or ridicule the content or New York Magazine, and she just took it.

The nature of her work is undoubtedly commercial, as she will sell them for profits once she wins the contest and the producers agree to manufacture them. This blatantly breaches the copyright holders’ interest–although the fashionable clothes can sell for a high price, they do not get a single penny out of it.

In addition, the article “Reasons to Love New York”  primarily includes the author’s own original opinion, not factual account of New York; thus, the designer’s work does not satisfy the second requirement for fair use: the nature of the copyrighted work.

As the definition of “transformative use” is the most blurry among the four guidelines that the federal law charted out, many people are either too confused about the legality of their work or just try to pass off as fair use.  Sometimes, the line can get really fuzzy, so the court needs to judge case by case.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • Andrew A. Sailer // Dec 29th 2009 at 11:43 am

    Good Post🙂

  • Burton Haynes // Dec 29th 2009 at 11:51 am

    Good Post🙂

  • Pablo Covington // Jan 8th 2010 at 3:41 am

    Hope you had a great time this winter holidays!

  • Bert K // Jan 10th 2010 at 9:19 am

    Good post, but the issue is a bit more complex than that.

    In an interview on “Tom and Lorenzo: Fabulously Opiniated,” Irina revealed her source for the roller coaster image: “I got the image from a vintage postcard from the 60s or 70s and added my own graphic twist to it. It wasn’t straight from the postcard. It was manipulated enough that it was my own image, but they still had to pay for it and that’s something they didn’t want to do. I ended up having to scrap that.”

    If you search “Irina’s Inspiration” on ebay, you’ll see the likely source postcard. Irina has made some clear changes to the original. Take a good look at the details of the Cyclone rollercoaster and the style of the rendering and see what you think.

  • Chanell Stemmler // Feb 2nd 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Hi. I’m from Germany. Thx for that real interesting Article… But can u tell me if you have also a RSS Feed, so i get informed when u write Another Article on that Topic? Greetings from germany

  • scaryroller // Oct 6th 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Hey, Found your blog on aol, and I just wanted to say that I appreciated the information.

  • Magazine // Oct 20th 2010 at 1:40 am

    WOW – thanks for the post!! I was always curious.

  • benefit cosmetics/nike // Apr 18th 2012 at 3:51 pm

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  • Teacher resources // Oct 3rd 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Excellent job once again. Thumbs up:)