Less than a week after the T-shirt that Frank Ocean wore at New York’s Panorama Festival became a viral sensation, the shirt and its creator are now at the center of a debate over copyright, intellectual property and the ownership of tweets.
At Ocean’s Panorama set, the singer wore a white shirt with black lettering that read, “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?”
The shirt was traced to the online merchant Green Box Shop, whose 18-year-old owner Kayla Robinson was soon inundated with 5,500 orders for the shirt, the New York Times reports.
What was a feel-good story for a young entrepreneur soon soured, however, when it was discovered that Robinson took the quote – without permission – from an August 2015 tweet by Syracuse, New York student Brandon Male.
Male first became aware that Green Box was producing shirts quoting his tweet in January, when a photo of a teen wearing the tee was retweeted over 87,000 times and liked 190,000 times. At that point, Male contacted Green Box, who told them they credited him on their Instagram before brushing him off.
After Ocean wore the Green Box shirt and sales – at $18.99 a shirt – exploded, Male again tweeted his displeasure about the situation; this time, Robinson sent him $100 via Venmo that gave Sale the impression of hush money.
“It was an impulsive decision. I hadn’t looked at the number of sales, and I wasn’t thinking about it portion-wise,” Robinson told the New York Times. “It does look like I was just throwing money at him to keep him quiet.
“Moving forward when people message me with shirt ideas, I should do more investigating. It would be pretty irresponsible of me to just take it. Being a creator myself, people have copied my shirts before. I totally understand Brandon. Even if it’s a tweet, I have to respect that.”
The situation mines a gray area in the realm of copyright ownership in the social media age, with tweets in a precarious position since copyright law doesn’t officially protect them from this type of appropriation.
Male could have filed a cease-and-desist against Green Box over the sale of the shirts and let a court determine the outcome; instead, the two teenagers talked Monday to reach a compromise in terms of compensation and credit.