NEW YORK • The United States Postal Service (USPS) has not got a stamp of approval over what it did, mistaking a replica of the Statue of Liberty from a Las Vegas hotel for the real thing, and using a photo on one of its most popular stamps.
A federal judge has ordered USPS to pay the statue's creator US$3.5 million (S$4.8 million) for exploiting the sculpture without permission or consent.
Robert S. Davidson sued for copyright infringement in 2013, claiming USPS had sold billions of the stamps, even after the US government realised it had confused an image of his plaster sculpture at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino for the 19th-century stone-and-copper behemoth on Staten Island.
After failing to convince the court that his statue was a building, not a sculpture, and therefore exempt from claims of artistic infringement, USPS argued that it simply was not original.
Davidson had simply copied a government-owned statue and therefore USPS could freely design stamps based on his creation.
To dispute that, Davidson told the court how he created the sculpture.
He took on the US$385,000 job in 1996, after completing a replica of the Sphinx down the street from the New York-New York.
Since he was not given a scale model to work with, he had to improvise his own design.
"I just thought that this needed a little more modern, a little more contemporary face, definitely more feminine," Davidson testified.
"Just something that I thought was more appropriate for Las Vegas." As inspiration, he used a picture of his mother-in-law.
Fifteen years later, Davidson said, his wife came home from the post office to tell him that his creation was being sold for 44 US cents a stamp.
USPS' manager of stamp development had been searching for a suitably patriotic image to replace a popular Liberty Bell stamp in 2010.
He was captivated by what he called a "different and unique" low-angle shot of Lady Liberty - without realising that the photo had been taken at the corner of Las Vegas and Tropicana boulevards.
USPS paid Getty Images US$1,500 to license the photo and turned it into a stamp-sized illustration.
The judge noted that it knew within a few months that it had used the wrong Lady Liberty. It was informed first by a photography company, then by a stamp collector's blog post, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
But after some internal discussion, the judge wrote, USPS decided to keep selling the stamp, which the government had already spent millions to print and distribute - and which had already proved so popular that the stamp was known internally as the agency's "workhorse".
USPS simply admitted the mistake, praised the design's beauty, and went on to sell nearly five billion stamps for more than US$2 billion before retiring it in early 2014, a few weeks after Davidson sued.
"The Postal Service offered neither public attribution nor apology," the judge wrote in his ruling.
Even with the thin profit margins, the government earned US$70 million in profit during the stamp's four-year run.
The judge decided that Davidson should get a 5 per cent royalty, and ordered the government to pay him US$3,548,470.95.