By Simon Herbert
Imagine that you are strolling through a gift shop, killing time and looking for useless things to buy to assuage your existential angst (isn’t that why we trawl through gift shops to begin with?) and you happen to pick up and peruse an alcohol flask. It’s one of that adorable line of comic geegaws that you’ve seen, so many times, in airports and shops from New Mexico to Massachusetts; made by Anne Taintor Inc. who, according to the company’s website, has been “making smart people smile since 1985.”
You’ve seen these variations before on everything from mugs to phone cases to fridge magnets: all of those ‘50s and ‘60s “Betty Draper” perfect housewife types from the likes of “Mad Men” TV series, smiling beatifically; but the archival, era-resonant, portraits are subverted by pithy quotes that paint a humorously different picture of motherhood and womanhood: the accompanying made-up ‘quotes’ are punkish ironic haikus about children left in baggage claims, a never-ending quest for booze, and scorn for uptight neighbors.
Maybe one of the reasons for the popularity of the brand — on its 30th anniversary it has 3,000 outlets in 25 countries — is precisely the disjunction between a supposedly idyllic era of bygone times, and the knowledge that family life has always been stressful, and maybe even helped a little with an occasional pre-evening Martini… so let’s all just have a little laugh at life…
… until, back in that gift shop, you are the daughter of a woman called Veronica Vigil… and you suddenly see your mom’s image plastered over the alcohol flask with the legend “I’m going to be the most popular girl in rehab.” And your mom happens to be a church-goer who abstains from alcohol, and lives in a small rural community.
Now what do you do? Now where is your sense of humor?
This is why Veronica Vigil is suing the company, and charges that Anne Taintor Inc. obtained and used her likeness from a high school graduation picture from 1970, without her permission.
According to the complaint. “Plaintiff is an active member of her church and does not consume alcohol or drugs. Given the seriousness of the issues of substance abuse in the community in which plaintiff resides, she has held herself out by reputation for her children and her community, to refrain from abuse or even use of alcohol and illicit drugs and has set an example that the issue is a very serious one that destroys families and lives.”
And this is where things get crazy in the Internet era; as a pre-digital era collides with a post-digital (will there ever be such a thing?) hoovering up of any and all images, for any and all uses.
Some of the arguments for whether Vigil has grounds for a case might well cleave to different ideas of what constitutes identity in 2015: of a sense of humor, of issues of cultural appropriation, and what is permissible in an era of selfies and Photoshop and photobombing.
But in a suit – which charges Taintor with defamation, invasion of privacy and unfair trade practices, and seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages – there can be no doubt that the issue isn’t to do with whether the woman whose face was printed on the flask doesn’t either have a sense of humor, or not… but how her likeness was appropriated in the first place?
At the time of writing, sites such as “Classmates.com” can reproduce an incredible array of high school yearbooks that have been scanned from the ‘50s onwards; and none of these images are being offered for sale, and certainly wouldn’t even begin to conform to an industry-standard of requiring standard model releases. But how do companies find these images, and how do they use them? Do they appropriate them from such sites?
There’s no doubt, as evinced in this test case, that images of people in their youth can be repurposed without their permission; and that unless the subject decides to sue, that this happens without any redress.
The question, no doubt to be specified over numerous court cases in the coming decade, is how people can retain control of their own history.