Judge: Party T-shirt doesn’t violate copyright

A T-shirt featuring an image of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and the phrase “Sorry for Partying” qualifies as political criticism and does not violate a photographer’s copyright, a federal judge has ruled.

The T-shirt was created by the apparel company Sconnie Nation and Underground Printing-Wisconsin, and was for sale at an annual end-of-the-school-year party that draws hundreds of University of Wisconsin-Madison students.

When Soglin was a UW-Madison student, he was arrested at the precursor of the party in 1969 for protesting the Vietnam War. But he has supported ending the event, called the Mifflin Street Block Party, because of excessive drinking in recent years, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Photographer Michael Kienitz shot Soglin’s official portrait and claimed in a 2012 lawsuit that use of it on the T-shirt violated his copyright. Kienitz has been a longtime supporter of Soglin and objected to having his work used to mock the mayor.

But Judge Stephen Crocker ruled Thursday that the T-shirt qualified as political criticism and constituted fair use of the photograph.

Sconnie Nation and Underground Printing-Wisconsin “employed this photograph for the diametric purposes of sophomoric humor and political critique,” Crocker wrote, adding they “used Kienitz’s photograph as raw material to create something entirely new with a different aesthetic, message and meaning.”

About 160 of the T-shirts were sold. They feature a monochromatic image of Soglin in neon green, framed by the words “Sorry For Partying.”

Sconnie Nation co-founder Troy Vosseller said the ruling was “a win for free speech.”