Wilde as a Groundbreaking Subject of a Copyright Infringement
Wilde image No. 18 and its unauthorized use in a trade card
Sarony’s contribution to the photographs of Oscar Wilde was not primarily technical. Instead, he drew upon his artistic background to create the mise en scène of the image, while Benjamin J. Richardson, his first and only operator, assisted with lighting and attended to the mechanical aspects of camera technique.
The importance of Sarony work on the photographs’ composition became evident quite early on in their history with Sarony’s legal case for copyright infringement against the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company for the use of the Wilde image No. 18 in their unauthorized lithograph trade cards based the image.
The Federal trial court for the Southern District of New York awarded a $610 judgment to Sarony (the equivalent today of over $13,000). The judgment was affirmed by the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, and subsequently by the Supreme Court of the United States. This landmark case has become well known not only to Wilde scholars, but also to students of copyright law and intellectual property.
The wording of the Supreme Court of the United States in establishing Sarony rights as the “author” is instructive as it establishes the value provided by the photographer:
"posing the said Oscar Wilde in front of the camera, selecting and arranging the costume, draperies, and other various accessories in said photograph, arranging the subject so as to present graceful outlines, arranging and disposing the light and shade, suggesting and evoking the desired expression, and from such disposition, arrangement, or representation, made entirely by the plaintiff, he produced the picture in suit.