Three months ago, city attorneys were convinced they had the right to demand payments from artists who use the "Portland Oregon" sign in their work.
They were so certain, they trolled Etsy looking for crafts with the iconic sign's twinkling lights and leaping white stag. They then demanded that the crafters remove the items from Etsy or pay an annual license fee that starts at $100.
Deputy city attorney Kalei Taylor even created a tool of public shaming—a "PDX sign violations" list on Etsy.
Outraged crafters shot back. "If you have nothing better to do with your time than to surf Etsy," wrote Teresa Chipperfield, a photographer, on May 14, "then perhaps the city of Portland has a few too many deputy city attorneys on their payroll."
Now, after one of the Etsy vendors, Jeff Kunkle, brought a June 25 lawsuit against the city, alleging the sign's trademark is invalid, Portland is rethinking its stance. Jen Clodius, a spokeswoman for the Portland Office of Management and Finance, says the city is re-evaluating its licensing policy after learning from outside counsel it may not be able to enforce the sign's trademark against people who create artistic renderings of the sign.
Through a public records request, WW obtained copies of the city's correspondence with Etsy artists—painters, silk screeners and Christmas ornament makers. We then asked the artists what they made of the city's attempts to collect on their crafts.
James Dunbar, painter
Dunbar, co-owner of Dunbar's Fine Art & Design, calls himself a "painter of colorful memories." His collection includes one 16-by-20-inch landscape of the Portland skyline from the east bank of the Willamette River that includes a small rendering of the "Portland Oregon" sign. That's what caught city officials' eyes. Dunbar, who sells on Etsy and at Portland Saturday Market, says he was willing to pay a licensing fee, though he opposed the idea on principle. "Van Gogh and Monet," he says, "when they painted Paris, did they have to pay money?" He adds: "The people who own the sign should be proud because we basically promote Portland."
Samantha Barsky, maker of handmade note cards, gift tags and Christmas ornaments with city themes
Barsky, who sells tote bags, dish towels, cards and ornaments with an image of the Burnside Bridge and the "Portland Oregon" sign, also was willing to pay the fee. But after she approached the city with questions about how to comply, officials mysteriously stopped responding to her. She applauds Kunkle for pursuing a lawsuit but questioned the city's legal strategy. "They've obviously set a precedent," she says, "and it's not in their favor."
Amanda Siska, owner and artist at Bread and Badger
Siska also never heard back from the city after Portland officials asked her to seek a license for selling shot glasses with an image of the sign's white stag sandblasted on them. "I respect other people's claims of ownership for their creative work, but it does seem like a historic public landmark may not fit into a neat category in regards to copyright," she writes in an email to WW. "When I first created my version of the stag design for sandblasting, I asked my lawyer if it was a protected symbol. He thought that my art was different enough from the original 'Portland Oregon' sign, that it wasn't considered a problem anyway, so I wasn't expecting to ever need a license.â
WW intern Mackenzie Broderick contributed reporting to this story.