December 05, 2016
Jacques Rodrigue (L ’07) illustrates copyright law principles for Tulane Law students with a painting that improperly used the image of the Blue Dog made famous by his artist father, the late George Rodrigue.
“I grew up in a world where dogs were blue,” Tulane Law alum Jacques Rodrigue (L ’07) told dozens of law students who filled a Magazine Street art gallery on a November Friday night.
He then proceeded to explain how he protects his father’s beloved Blue Dog from being poached, including via unauthorized Hallmark renditions, Beanie Babies replicas and online ripoff artists.
His efforts include:
— Intercepting illicit cellphone covers shipped in from Mexico.
— Stopping bogus merchandise, like a French Market vendor’s framed Blue Dog “prints” that weren’t authorized reproductions but pages cut from books featuring George Rodrigue’s art.
— Getting sites like eBay to take down listings offering custom-made (but fraudulent) Blue Dog paintings.
And when Jacques Rodrigue saw on Instagram that Ty had come out with an unlicensed Blue Dog-hued Beanie dog with what he described as “pouty lips and take-me-home eyes,” he pursued a copyright infringement claim — and secured a confidential settlement that went to the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of educating the public what can and can’t be done” under copyright law, said Rodrigue, who serves as executive director of the foundation, which was started in 2009.
“There’s the risk, if you weren’t vigilant … that you could lose some rights.”
Drawings behind Jacques Rodrigue show children’s renderings of the Blue Dog, which the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts encourages.
The discussion with Rodrigue was sponsored by two Tulane Law student groups, the Civil Law Society and the Entertainment and Art Law Society. Along with an overview of his father’s rise from Cajun painter to pop-art icon, Rodrigue gave students a primer on copyright law and its application to an artist whose work remains carefully controlled.
“It’s that balance of how much do you want to protect versus how much do you want the work to be out there,” he said.
George Rodrigue died in 2013, and his family doesn’t manipulate existing work into new pieces. However, money is raised for the foundation through sales of prints, particularly of work that the artist hadn’t previously made available in that format.
The foundation, which grew out of his fundraising for relief efforts after the 9/11 terror attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, now awards thousands of dollars in college scholarships through an annual art contest, donates art supplies and supports Louisiana A+ Schools, a program that trains teachers to incorporate the arts into every subject in every classroom as a technique to boost learning.
Having access to alumni deeply involved in the arts is a hallmark of Tulane Law’s IP program, which also partners with entrepreneurs, gives students the opportunity to perform pro bono work for New Orleans artists and musicians and has arranged close-up sessions with lawyers and movie studio executives in California.
Protecting intellectual property rights includes intercepting products such as these unauthorized phone cases.
Civil Law Society President Rachel Gulotta (L ’17), who like George Rodrigue is from New Iberia, Louisiana, said she appreciated the chance for students to “learn to differentiate Cajun Louisiana from what they've come to understand of Louisiana from the New Orleans perspective.” She also compared notes with Jacques Rodrigue about civil law professors whose classes they both took.
He said he focused on intellectual property law at Tulane, and using his legal skills to protect his father’s brand and legacy requires keeping up with evolving challenges involving law, business and technology, he explained.
For instance, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act shields internet providers, such as eBay and Amazon.com from liability if they remove infringing material once they’re notified.
“Where I spend most of my time is emailing websites letting them know there’s infringing material put up there by their users,” Rodrigue said.
Other issues include taxes assessed on donated art and on estates, authentication questions, royalty rights and fine art insurance.
“In many ways, the law is trying to catch up with artists and the art world,” he said.
The event came just days after the 2016 election season, during which Louisiana’s “I VOTED” stickers featured the Blue Dog against a U.S. flag motif. The collaboration had to accommodate legal considerations along with community interests: Rodrigue said it was a challenge to produce a design without creating something his father never did. The stickers that resulted were based on a 2001 painting in the New Orleans Museum of Art permanent collection.
“An interesting take-away [from the evening] was understanding the copyright issues that arise in fine arts and why infringement can be so harmful to an artist or brand,” said Judith Gronna (L ’17), president of the Tulane Entertainment and Art Law Society. “I also thought it was important to hear the personalized story of the Blue Dog and George Rodrigue and how it became such an iconic image for Louisiana based on deliberate choices, both artistic and legal, made by the artist.”