Wilde image No. 18 (left) and its unauthorized use in a trade card and verso
Wilde as the Subject of a Groundbreaking Copyright Infringement Case
Napoleon 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; and drew upon his buoyant personality to create the right mood for his sitter.
Meanwhile, it was his first and only operator, Benjamin J. Richardson who assisted with lighting and attending to the mechanical aspects of camera technique.
The artistic 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 producing unauthorized lithograph trade cards based on Sarony’s Wilde image No. 18.
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.
This most familiar examples of trade cards referenced in connection with the Sarony case are the ones produced for the New York department store Ehrich Bros., as can be seen in the graphic at the top of this page. However, although the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company had made 30,000 of these cards, they are not the ones that Sarony used in the court filing.
The problem was that Burrow-Giles was about to deliver another 100,000 of the cards—this time imprinted to a Chicago department store known as Mandel Bros.—and it was an example of the Mandel card that Sarony’s lawyers used in the original case in the U.S. Circuit Court.
The rarely seen Exhibit A (photo) and Exhibit B (trade card) used in the 1883 case can be seen below: