Serendipity by Proxy

I’m surprised that anyone anywhere thinks they can do anything they want to with something they “found” on the web and not have anyone else anywhere notice that they did it. Frankly, if the web has done anything besides remind us all that there is someone else out there with the same sexual deviance as you, it is the inevitability of the documentation of every fucking thing all the fucking time.

Take, for example, the Case of the Expensive T-shirt Designer That Didn’t Bother to Do His or Her Proper Research Regarding the Origin of the Particular Flickr Account Owner of the Image They Thought They Could Simply Borrow-Slash-Steal for Part of the Graphic on One of Their Over-Priced Garments Except That They Had No Right to Do So and Then They Got Caught by the Originator’s Boyfriend.

Deepak Chopra may consider that there’s no such thing as coincidence, in which case God has a fucking great sense of humor and suddenly a lot of the crap I put up with on a daily basis makes a little more sense when considered in relation to the fact that a lot of it is done in the name of God and there isn’t one, but the sequence of events that had to conspire together to lead up to what ended up happening during my recent trip to New York City are just slim enough when taken one at a time and incredibly odd when combined together to make me reconsider my opinion about fate.

And, yes, if you think I’m going to abandon my love for run-on sentences at some point in the future on this, my blog, then you’re as insane as Deepak Chopra, though probably a lot less financially well off, so maybe you should shut up about how dumb he is or how annoying I am and write your own damn series of books about how other people should live. Go, you.

Robert, my boyfriend of going on three years and no we’re not talking about getting married even though we totally could and then possibly couldn’t all over again because, you know, Mormons and whatnot, invited me to accompany him to New York this past week because he was giving a talk at “yet another conference” (my words, not his) and he already had a rather nice hotel room booked in Soho with a big bed and a nice view and I kept telling him that NYC is a really great place even though, in his P.O.V., it is more akin to hell than hellaciously fun, so I would have another chance to prove it. The weather would be better than the last time we were there, in February I believe, and he would have more free time for this, that and the other thing. It would also be, coincidentally, the occasion of his 36th birthday on October the 21st, which in my mind also occasions the giving of gifts.

Robert is a particularly hard target of gift-giving. Firstly, he is in a position, financially, where he could buy pretty much anything that strikes his fancy. Secondly, his fancy is also very fanciful, so a mere book or cheese collection, while nice, isn’t quite up to par. For example, he recently purchased thousands of dice in order to assemble a likeness of the Virgin Mary in the top of his coffee table. Now I ask you, when has it ever occurred to you that the perfect present for your significant other is “thousands of dice?” Lastly, his taste and my taste are both, if I do say so myself, excellent. However, my tastes run toward the humorous, weird and colorful, while he tends toward the intelligent, abstract and monochrome. Put another way, if I’m Roald Dahl by way of Salvador Dali, he’s Umberto Eco married to Richard Serra.

Prior to leaving for New York, I presented him with a couple of gifts that I had already picked out that wouldn’t easily fit in luggage, one being a book by the x-ray photographer-slash-artist Nick Veasey and the other being a 14″ tall super-articulated war-fighting robot figurine (complete with severed zombie heads) called Bertie modeled after a series of paintings by Ashley Wood. But there was something missing from all the art and artifice, and that was the practical side of Robert and my need to dress him up like a big, tall, gay Ken doll.

I know, Ken is already gay. Just go with me here.

I’m not saying that Robert is unable to dress himself. I’m saying that Robert dresses for comfort first, appearance second. Not, also, that he isn’t always dressed in a presentable fashion, even when he’s presenting, and I mean that in a conference-way and not a “I’m presenting!” way, wink wink, nudge nudge. But he will not wear a tie, never owned a suit until I made him buy one, and is the type of man who says “I really like that (insert article of clothing here), but I can’t see myself wearing it.” Normally, this phrase is applied to anything with a collar, a color palette veering outside the grays and black, or what he considers “too feminine.”

As it happens, we are both foodies of the most determined nature, and since Robert and I (but Robert moreso) are also sushi lovers, I made us a reservation at Masa, which is best described as the French Laundry of sushi restaurants. For a last birthday semi-surprise, I wanted to buy Robert a nice dress shirt to wear because I was certain he hadn’t brought anything but t-shirts and jeans on the trip.

Luckily, we were staying in Soho, and if there’s one thing that Soho has, it’s nice clothing stores, including two fairly large outlets for two of my favorite British designers, Paul Smith and Ted Baker.
I will confess an abject love and devotion for Paul Smith. I will also confess that I often find the price tags on Paul Smith togs a bit hard to swallow. Yes, the tailoring is beautiful and the artistic touches and attention to detail are beautiful. He also did a line of clothes in conjunction with eBoy a few years back, so he has some web cred about what’s what and who’s who. So I headed there with Robert’s college friend Tara to search out the perfect shirt for Robert’s sensitivities.
I knew that Robert also likes Paul Smith because the one and only suit Robert owns is a Paul Smith. It fit him perfectly, it was has just enough chromatic qualities to appeal to his sensitivities and enough small nods to color (and the signature interior splashiness) to appeal to my sometimes outlandish love of a bright palette.

So in we went, Tara and I, with nothing more in mind that finding “the perfect shirt.” And Paul Smith did not disappoint. There were a few shirts I salivated over, as well as a dark blue jacket with sky blue hand stitched details and a perfectly perfect suit in something between shiny and matte that looked smashing on its hanger, though at $4,000 I was more than a bit put off from even trying one on.

We rounded a corner from Mr. Smith’s executive wear section into the low-end jeans line, Red Ear (low-end for Mr. Smith means $200 t-shirts and $50 socks) and I was stopped in my tracks when I spotted what appeared to be a maroon sweatshirt with a silkscreened bird flocking print that reminded my strongly of an experiment Robert had been working on in Processing to simulate those giant clouds of birds that move and swoop and reorganize in the sky based on who knows what. He’d captured a few screen grabs of the resulting animation and had uploaded them to his Flickr account in March of 2007. And here was a similar image on a Paul Smith sweatshirt.

Turned out it was a long-sleeved T-shirt. Turned out it was $235. Turned out I didn’t buy it for Robert. Instead, we left the store and ventured to “Paul Smith Lite” AKA Ted Baker (and if Mr. Baker is reading this, my apologies, but it’s how I look at your stuff) and managed, with Tara’s help, to find a nice shirt that coupled my need to dress Robert in something out of the ordinary with Robert’s need to appear as ordinary as possible. (If Robert is reading this, my apologies, but you know what I mean.)

I gifted him with the shirt that day and that was that. He wore the shirt to Masa on Friday night and looked quite dashing, if I do say so myself.

Saturday morning dawned warmish and threatening, with storms called for in the forecast and a full day with nothing to do in New York City for two gay men in Soho. First thought in my head: “Let’s go shopping!” I wanted to head back over to Paul Smith again to show him some of what he almost wore to dinner, and to show him that sweatshirt that reminded me of his work.
It was spitting rain and the streets were overrun with shoppers and tourists as we made our way from the hotel to the store. I showed him the jacket I liked so much and a couple of the dress shirts I considered to see if I made the right decision with the Ted Baker (and I had) and then I showed him the “flock of birds” top, still sitting all nicely folded on its shelf, still priced at $235.
He looked at it and said, yes, it looked remarkably similar to his piece. He took out his iPhone and took a couple of quick pictures of it and we left, moving through the crowds again to get back to the hotel because the skies were no longer spitting at us, they had started to openly weep.
Back in our room, Robert opened up his laptop and steered the browser to his Flickr account to take a look at his own “flock of birds” images to compare the two. It was still kind of giddy and weird that they looked so much alike, and then he pulled the image into Photoshop and flipped it and reversed it and imported the shirt picture from his cameraphone and…

They were so similar that they were, in fact, exactly the same. The upper left portion of Robert’s copyrighted flocking image had been used on Paul Smith’s long-sleeve T-shirt. Robert superimposed his own image on top of the t-shirt design, tugged at the edges to account for the angle and material stretching, and there was absolutely no doubt. They were the same images.
So we stood there looking down at the laptop’s glowing screen and the undeniable evidence that Paul Smith’s T-shirt was using Robert Hodgin’s image. He asked me, “Can they do that? Just take my image and use it?”

I said, “It depends on what kind of copyright control you placed on it. Are you using a Creative Commons license? There are some differences about what someone else can and can’t do with your posted images.”

“Where do I find that?”

We looked around in his Flickr account settings and everything in it was covered with an “all rights reserved” license.

“So… he can’t do that.”

I shook my head with a slight grimace. “All rights reserved means all rights. He has to ask you for permission or he has to pay you or whatever agreement you come up with between you and him. But, no, he can’t simply take your image, flip it around, paste on some more birds and sell his T-shirt for $235 using your design. He can’t do that.”

“I’m buying it.”

It was, easily, one of the weirdest moments of my life. It seemed to me that by now, everyone knows you can’t simply use someone else’s stuff without permission. It seemed to me that Paul Smith, or possibly Paul Smith’s lackeys, and quite definitely Paul Smith’s attorneys, know this to be true, particularly when it comes to protecting Paul Smith’s signature stripe or Paul Smith’s rabbit logo on his shoes or the name Paul Smith. There’s no, like, slim difference when it comes to copyright.

Then I was thinking about the circumstances leading to Robert standing in this New York hotel room over his laptop staring at undeniable proof that a shirt designed in London and manufactured in Hong Kong by a well-known and reputable design label had gone through the process of designing, approving, making, pricing and selling — in its own store — a shirt using an image found in someone’s Flickr account with what I can only assume was a kind of lessez faire attitude about “borrowing” someone else’s work to integrate into a design because, you know, who’d ever find out? What are the chances that the guy who made the one single image among millions would wander into a Paul Smith boutique and find the one, exact shirt among hundreds of articles of clothing that featured his work?

I mean, really, what are the chances?

We returned to the store and Robert did buy it, after trying it on (again, a perfect fit — kudos, Paul!) and, I must admit, he looked quite fetching in it. He wore the shirt he had an unknowing part in designing the rest of the day, admiring his own handiwork and wondering what he would do about it.

Me, I think Mr. Smith or whomever was assigned within the Paul Smith brand to come up with a new bird-based shirt, missed an opportunity. One small extra step could’ve yielded a much more interesting piece of clothing, if they had only asked Robert about the design.

See, the design is based on a piece of flocking programming that continually creates unique patterns of thousands of bird silhouettes. Coincidentally, Robert’s company, The Barbarian Group, designed a system for CNN that could create T-shirts on the fly based on any headline appearing at, so that (if used as designed) everyone who visited could potentially click a link and get their own unique headline shirt. Maybe only one person gets it, maybe a dozen, maybe a hundred.

What if they combined Robert’s flocking program, the headline shirt idea and Paul Smith’s label together and for $300 instead of $235, anyone wishing to get their very own, one-of-a-kind, completely original and unique Paul Smith “flock of birds” print would have one made on the fly and delivered to them via FedEx in less than a week.

But, no. Instead, someone (probably) thought, “Everything on Flickr is free for the taking! I can use anything I want to because they’re publishing it online so that must mean yodda, yodda, yodda. I suppose I could, like, ask for permission. Uhhhhh, no, I’ll just use this, flip it around, no one will ever know. I mean, what are the chances?”

Except that I flew to New York with my boyfriend, the designer, and went out looking for a nice dress shirt for our expensive sushi dinner and found your shirt on a shelf in a Paul Smith boutique. Welcome to the web, Mr. Smith, where nothing ever hides.

Read Robert’s take.

October 29, 2008

Leave a Reply