Tesla Used An Artist's Work Without Permission And Elon Musk Was Unsurprisingly An Ass About It

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If you’ve ever done design work or art work or nearly any creative work for hire, at some point you’ve most likely encountered some asshole who wants to use your work for free in exchange for “exposure.” It now appears that Elon Musk is one of those assholes, stealing an image of a farting unicorn from an artist.

The controversy was first reported by Westword, a Denver-based arts and culture website, after blowing up on Twitter when Musk was called out by the daughter of the artist.

That unicorn image, which appeared on a mug enjoyed by Elon Musk, has since made its way into Tesla’s car user interface, and has been used to promote hidden features of Tesla’s cars in tweets from the company for over a year, all without permission from the original artist. Musk suggested, in now-deleted tweets, that the artist should be thankful of the “attention” brought to the work.

Here’s the Twitter exchange:

Elon responded initially, but has since deleted these tweets. Happily, this is the internet, so screenshots of his tweets do exist.

In the exchange with Lisa Prank (real name Robin Edwards), Edwards’ daughter, Elon deals with the situation in the worst possible way, first by playing dumb:

“Was chosen randomly by the software team as a joke (they didn’t tell me in advance)”

... then, after he was reminded that they’d been using her father’s artwork for over a year by his daughter, and being asked if Musk felt artists should be paid for their work, Musk responded

“Was actually someone else’s drawing of a unicorn on hidden Tesla sketch pad add & we gained no financial benefit. Have asked my team to use a diff example going forward. He can sue for money if he wants, but that’s kinda lame. If anything, this attention increased his mug sales.”

And there it is. Elon thinks it’s “kinda lame” to try to get paid for your work, as opposed to just stealing someone’s work and using it, which I guess is what the cool kids do.

As far as mug sales go, Edwards does say that about 100 mugs were sold as a result of the original tweet, which is pretty poor compensation for helping a large automaker of premium electric cars promote their products.

This miserable concept that somehow it’s okay to steal work in exchange for “exposure” or “attention” is such a cliché that you can just Google the very idea and get a screenful of memes and cartoons about it.

In this case, the artwork was on a mug produced by Tom Edwards, and depicts a charmingly crude drawing of a unicorn in mid-flight, farting magic energy farts into a funnel that leads to a car, providing it with (we assume) motive power. A rainbow and smiley faces populate the surrounding environment.

We know Elon was a fan of this mug, as he tweeted about it:

We can also assume he really likes this mug because the hidden Easter Eggs in the Tesla center stack screen include an icon for Tesla’s MS Paint-like drawing app called Sketchpad, and that icon is Edward’s farting unicorn artwork. Here, look:

The same image was also used heavily in Tesla’s promotion of the sketchpad feature, as early as March 2017:

The image was also used on Tesla Christmas “card” images pushed out to all Tesla screens. There’s no question the image was being used by Tesla to market and promote their product, and all Tesla paid for that image was Elon Musk’s purchase of a lone mug. Mug purchases don’t give you the right to the images on that mug, otherwise I’d be a millionaire from selling shirts with Garfield saying filthy things.

What makes this especially maddening is how little effort would have been required to do this right—and I know Tesla is capable of doing the right thing, because I have firsthand experience with this.

Back in 2014, we ran a story about Tesla open-sourcing their patents, and for our top image I modified that famous video game screenshot with the “All your base belong to us” guy. Tesla reached out to us to ask if it was okay for them to use the image on a wall at their facility and, even though I had repurposed a video game screenshot myself, we were fine with it, so they went ahead and painted their wall.

That wasn’t hard! All they had to do was call Edwards and ask if they could use the image, and, ideally, offer some kind of reasonable compensation. They can goddamn afford it.

Clearly, Elon liked the unicorn image enough for it to be used so extensively in promoting the hidden sketchpad feature, which can hardly be called “hidden” when you tweet it out on the public internet. This wasn’t some little internal-use bullshit; this image was used for public-facing Tesla materials.

Edwards’ lawyer has sent Tesla a letter, but so far has not received any response. I guess that means Tesla is okay with the free use of images, so maybe we’ll start selling these mugs:

I mean, think of all the exposure we’ll be giving the brand!

We’ve reached out to Tesla for comment, and they declined to comment.