By A.J. Etherington
The Courier 

Sean R. Heavey Challenges Netflix for Alleged Copyright Infringement


A.J. Etherington / The Courier

Sean Heavey poses with his flagship work of art "The Mothership" at his Gallery in downtown Glasgow.

When Sean R. Heavey watched an episode of Netflix's Stranger Things some months back, he couldn't help but feel a sense of familiarity about the storm in the scene he was watching. To hear Heavey tell it, he had to go back multiple times to freeze the scene and verify it was not his image in the special effects of the cut.

Heavey had moved on, when a friend happened to be watching the Netflix documentary Beyond Stranger Things, and noticed a striking similarity between a concept art depiction of the very scene described above and his real world hallmark work of art "The Mothership."

Heavey told the Courier that, "Netflix did not get my permission to use the photo, and I do not list the photo with any stock agencies."

After looking for feedback from friends, other photographers and the online community, Heavey took the company to task by sending a letter informing them of the photos copyright. Heavey's thinking at the time was that he would get a response, a photo credit and a licensing fee. Instead, he received a letter from Netflix's in-house counsel denying any infringement.

According to the letter, which the Courier has read, Netflix claimed that Heavey had no right to a copyright claim for multiple reasons. Mainly, the company did not feel that cloud formations could be protected by a copyright saying, "No artist can claim a monopoly over depicting a real-world public domain object such as a cloud formation."

This seemed to suggest to Heavey that Netflix believed the picture was merely of a similar cloud formation and not a duplicate of his image. So, again he sought the opinion of other photographers, friends and even meteorologists, who, according to Heavey's account, mostly all agreed the image was unique in formation and beyond a reasonable doubt belonged to him.

Heavey has copyrighted the image with the United States Copyright Office and it has been licensed for print by National Geographic, USA Today and other international media outlets. Even former Vice President Al Gore paid a licensing fee to use the photograph as a backdrop for his TED Talk and speaking campaign on climate change.

The other argument Netflix made against Heavey's claim was that the original image had been altered so dramatically that it was virtually a different image. Again, Heavey countered with the sentiment of himself and his supporters that it is a fallacy to say the photo is not recognizable as his own since so many people noted the similarities.

Heavey points out that all the details of the cloud from his original image are present even though it has been placed in a new concept art, and the coloring has been digitally altered.

"To me it's pretty obvious that it's my image and I'm surprised they didn't just go, 'yep,' and offer a licensing fee," said Heavey.

Heavey, for his part, gives Netflix the benefit of the doubt saying, "I think they took it off a web search, and added it to the concept art never thinking it would be public." Nonetheless, he certainly feels he should have been asked permission to use the piece of art, and he feels that is especially the case when the artwork appeared publicly in the Netflix documentary.

Heavey has retained a lawyer and feels he has a strong claim against the company. According to a CNN Money article published in January, Netflix is worth more than $100 billion. A side-by-side comparison of the original photo and the Stranger Things concept art can be viewed at Sean R. Heavey's personal Facebook page.

The Courier contacted Netflix in-house counsel, Jarin Jackson, but he did not want to provide comment. An email has also been sent to Netflix media relations department, but as of press time no response has been received.

Disclosure: Sean R. Heavey is a personal friend of the publisher/editor of The Glasgow Courier A.J. Etherington.


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