In Brief

Elon Musk’s Farting Unicorn Sketch Draws Ire of Artist Who Isn’t Credited

Potter Tom Edwards claims the Tesla CEO appropriated an image of the mythical animal passing gas without his permission.

Image of Tom Edwards’s mug, featuring the motif that has been part of his line of Wallyware since 2010. (image courtesy of the artist)

We must, each of us, choose our time to stand and fight. To gaze, unflinching, at the forces that threaten us and say, “Not today, Goliath.”

For some, it is in defense of democracy and an American way of life that didn’t used to so closely resemble a science-fiction dystopia. For others, it is to protect the love, humanity, and kinship of this wacky human experiment into which we are all born. And for one brave Colorado-based ceramicist named Tom Edwards, it is in defense of an image of a farting unicorn that Tesla CEO and noted rich person Elon Musk has stolen, in a helpful reminder that “visionary” is sometimes a nice way of saying someone is borderline insane.

While the phrase “farting unicorn” makes this news — as reported by the Guardian — difficult to take seriously, it is ultimately a high-profile case of the kind of intellectual property theft by which artists are constantly plagued. Musk’s position is legally indefensible, considering a tweet in February of 2017 (since deleted), wherein he acknowledged one of the potter’s mugs, whose design featured the mythological creature powering an electric car by farting into a funnel leading to the gas tank. Musk identified the work as “maybe my favorite mug ever,” and the exposure led to a little boost in sales for Edwards.

Screenshot of Elon Musk's version of the original Tom Edwards image, as posted on Twitter (the tweet has since been deleted).
Screenshot of Elon Musk’s version of the original Tom Edwards image, as posted on Twitter (the tweet has since been deleted).

But the good vibes did not linger in the air. Edwards, who described himself as a fan of Musk, raised an eyebrow when he noticed a close pastiche of his image featured in a Tesla sketch pad demo tweeted out by Musk in March of 2017 — this time without any kind of credit. A career potter, Edwards has been selling mugs featuring this image since 2010. Musk, a billionaire, did not even bother to change the smiley face motif in the background, or alter the fart, which weirdly resembles an upside-down chef’s hat. Ah well, all in good fun … until Edwards learned, from a Tesla-owning friend, that Tesla had used his image as part of the user interface in their cars, in a Christmas message that greeted drivers in December of 2017.

At this point, Edwards called a few lawyers, though pretty much anyone could have identified this textbook case of copyright infringement. On May 23, lawyer Tim Atkinson sent a letter to Tesla on behalf of Edwards, as “not a cease and desist” but an “invitation for all parties to continue to benefit from the whimsical, and amazingly spot on piece of imagery my client created in 2010, which now appropriately finds a home in the operating system of the magical vehicles your company produces.” This seems pretty reasonable, considering Edwards has one of the richest men in the country dead to the nines on copyright infringement. So naturally, the billionaire paid the humble potter commensurate with his work, and the story ended happily for all.

Just kidding! Musk took to Twitter — whose developers probably wonder daily when the Hague will be calling to announce their prosecution for crimes against humanity — to harass Edwards’s daughter, who had directed an inquiry his way while tweeting out an article in a local paper on her father’s struggle to get recognized by Tesla for the work they valued enough to disseminate across their entire user network, but not enough to pay him for it.

It is a dark time, indeed, as even the highest courts in the land struggle to identify and uphold our country’s most foundational values, like freedom of religion, but this appropriation of a farting unicorn is the final bridge. I stand with Tom Edwards, and this is the hill on which we triumph or die. History will judge our choices — and by that time, Elon Musk’s cryogenically frozen head will likely have fled to outer space — but let it never be said of me that when they came for the farting unicorns, I said nothing.

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