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Judge rejects teen artist’s copyright claim against Target

Laura Brown//October 6, 2022//

Close-up of Nolan Cooley's hands as he signs an artwork

In an image taken from the amended complaint in his copyright infringement lawsuit against Target Corp., autistic teen artist Nolan Cooley signs one of his original artworks.

Judge rejects teen artist’s copyright claim against Target

Laura Brown//October 6, 2022//

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After beating Target’s motion to dismiss in April 2021, an autistic teen’s mother’s copyright claims against the retail giant have been dismissed with prejudice. On Sept. 28, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank granted Target’s motion for summary judgment in Kristin N. Cooley, a guardian of the estate of N.O.C., a minor v. Target Corporation, Target Enterprise, Inc., and John Does 1-10.

The case stems from a complaint filed in May 2020 by Nolan Cooley’s mother, Kristin. Nolan, then 16 years old, is a noted artist who has autism. Kristin is guardian of Nolan’s estate. Nolan acquired a large following, gaining national recognition and critical acclaim for his artwork. Among his works, Nolan drew a pattern referred to as “scribble dots.” He created these works between 2012 and 2018. Kristin alleged that the guardianship of Nolan’s estate is the lawful owner of valid registered copyrights in Nolan’s creative expressions.

Kristin alleged that Target sold “plainly and unlawfully copied and/or were derivative works” based on the scribble dots. Target had used scribble dots on its children’s apparel line, Cat & Jack, in merchandise including clothes, shoes, backpacks, lunch bags, and swimsuits. In April 2021, Judge Frank denied Target’s motion to dismiss, concluding that Kristin had sufficiently alleged “substantial similarity” between her son’s works and the Cat & Jack merchandise.

In her amended complaint, Kristin claimed that Target copyrighted 12 pieces of her son’s artwork and used them in Cat & Jack products. Target became aware of Nolan’s artwork in the summer of 2018. Target created the “@TargetTag” Instagram account to connect with Gen Z teenagers. The social media account featured content that was created by artists with whom Target partnered. Target’s marketing department looked for creative partners on social media and the internet to be featured. As a result of this, one employee, a Target copyrighter, discovered Nolan’s work on social media in 2018. Krink, a New York City art supply company, posted a video of Nolan making a block pattern on canvas onto their Instagram page.

Subsequently, Nolan was invited to Target headquarters to participate in CrushCon, a social media promotional project. During this, Nolan collaborated with Target employees and other young artists. A few months later, Kristin discovered that Target was selling a line of Cat & Jack products with a pattern that was extremely similar to Nolan’s artwork. She sent a demand letter to Target, arguing that Nolan’s copyrights were infringed. Target denied any infringement, claiming that the products were designed long before Nolan was on Target’s radar. A year and a half later, Kristin sued.

Target asserts that its design process takes about a year. In the summer of 2017, Target decided on a “Kid Creator” theme for items sold in summer and early fall of 2018. The trend direction document provided to textile designers highlighted dots, scribbles, and doodles. Rebecca Davis, a senior textile designer at Target, alleged she made a scribbled polka dot designed as a child in school might do. Of the 12 copyrighted pieces of Nolan’s artwork, Davis’ designs allegedly infringed on all of them, except one created by Target business partner Delta Galil.

This image taken from the amended complaint against Target Corp. shows a lunch bag with a design alleged to violate teen artist Nolan Cooley’s copyright.
This image taken from the amended complaint against Target Corp. shows a lunch bag with a design alleged to violate teen artist Nolan Cooley’s copyright.

Attempting to show that Target had access to the artwork and that there was substantial similarity in the designs, Cooley put forth two theories that Target copied. The first was the theory of wide dissemination.

Kristin first argued that that Nolan’s widespread online presence gave Target ample opportunity to access the copyright works. But Judge Frank found that the argument failed for three reasons. The first reason was that Nolan was not discovered on his on social media account but on the social media account of an art supply company. That company did not publish Nolan’s copyright works. Nor did the marketing employee who discovered Nolan interact with the designers of the Cat & Jack products that allegedly copied Nolan’s work. But it was the third reason that the court found the most compelling: The video on the social media account was posted after the infringement allegedly occurred.

Judge Donovan also teased out a “chain of events theory” in Kristin’s brief, which implicitly asserts that Davis or Delta Galil may have seen Nolan on the internet and accessed the copyright works in 2017. But Kristin did not show how anyone from Target accessed Nolan’s work before 2018. “The mere fact that Target designers use the internet for inspiration is not enough to link Davis or Delta Galil to posts featuring the Copyright Works,” Frank wrote.

Nolan has another potential copyright claim against Target regarding smiley face designs. The court urged the parties to find a resolution.

RELATED: Teen artist wins round against Target

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