Jeff Koons claims to own all balloon dogs

Lawyers representing Jeff Koons, the pop artist known for remixing common objects and other peoples' art, have demanded that San Francisco's Park Life stop selling book-ends that look like balloon dogs. Koons's lawyers argue that since Koons once produced a set of iconic statues of balloon dogs, all representations of balloon dogs are henceforth Koons's exclusive purview, and anyone who makes or sells a balloon dog infringes on Koons's copyright.

I always say that every pirate wishes he was an admiral, but it's not often that you get as clear an example as this: having built a career on the flexibilities in copyright law that allow artists to make transformative use of the works around them, Koons now wishes to terminate those flexibilities and award himself exclusive rights over all the works he's made, and the works that inspired them.

This is a textbook case of why artists who argue against copyright flexibilities should be viewed with great skepticism; like the established fashion designers who say that it's unfair that clothing patterns don't qualify for copyright (and never mind the fact that all these designers benefited enormously from the right to copy popular designs when they were starting out), Koons believes that copyright flexibilities should only apply to him, and not to the artists who come after him.

lawyers of american artist jeff koons issued a cease-and-desist letter to park life, a small san francisco store and gallery, asking them to stop selling and advertising their balloon dog bookends.

can koons own something that existed before him? also considering that the artist has based his whole career on appropriating pop culture and has been repeatedly sued for inappropriately using others' copyrighted images.

jeff koons : can one copyright a balloon animal? (Thanks, Greg Long!)


  1. On the one hand, these balloon dogs do bear a close resemblance to Koons’ sculpture. On the other, there must be only so many ways to configure a balloon dog. The gripping hand is that balloon dogs in this pattern are prior art, so Koons doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and should fire his lawyers since they should have advised him not to be so damn stupid.

    1. >balloon dogs in this pattern are prior art, so Koons doesn’t have a leg to stand on

      Well, prior art is not a defense in copyright. The standard for a copyright is whether the author created something original. Under one standard, the argument then becomes what’s the original portion: the entire sculpture? Just the shape? The size? The glossy finish? The answer to those questions then gets compared to the allegedly infringing bookends.

      That being said, there are other factors that can be used to help the store: are they advertising it as an objet d’art? If not, then they can allege they are just making copies of a traditional balloon animal, rather than referring to Koons’ work, etc.

      At the end of the day, unless the gallery commissioned those bookends, they can always rely on the supplier to fight their legal battle. Or they can contact a law school clinic–if I were a law student, I’d love to work on this case…

    2. these balloon dogs do bear a close resemblance to Koons’ sculpture

      I humbly and respectfully disagree.
      At best, it depends on what the definition of the word “close” is, and since we’re talking about a pretty generic type of object, to be a “close” resemblance would require something a lot “close”r, at least in my view.
      Two significant differences on just a first glance:
      first, the Koons balloons are much more rounded. The sides of each balloon on the bookends are nearly straight lines, and nearly parallel, making them look more like cylinders.
      second, and much more blatant, is that the Koons balloons have a hi-gloss finish, and function well as mirrors (though distorting, fun-house mirrors). These bookends have matte finishes. The “artistic experience” (if any) of the bookends is nowhere near that of the Koons works.
      Not even close.

  2. Christ, what an asshole. I like his stuff, but that’s damned ridiculous. Makes me want to get some balloons and just make dogs to hand out to kids in front of his house.

  3. This story makes me sad. I vividly remember going to the MCA in Chicago when I was about 12-13 and one of the first things I saw was his chrome rabbit piece. To say the least, my mind was blown. Not really by his pice in particular but the whole experience. It was the first time I can remember being really, truly interested in and affected by art. Up until then I appreciated art and everything but it was just a bunch of old renaissance pantings and The Thinker as far as I was concerned. The MCA really just blew my brains out all over the place and when I was done I walked out a different person. I never forgot this guys name or his work and I never heard it again until now. Sucks.

  4. I love when artists who appropriate then complain when they are appropriated. By “love” I mean it makes me laugh very hard.

    Anyhow, I walked by Park Life yesterday, and there was one of these in the window.

  5. I really hope this lawsuit is just performance piece aimed at showing the ridiculousness of copyright…

  6. These bookends are nothing like Koons’ sculpture. All the details are different.

    Also try making it – you can’t. The ears should be joined at the top, unless you have a balloon with 3 ends…

    1. I don’t find them similar, either. Besides the very significant difference in material, Koons’ sculpture looks inflated, like it might actually be a metallic balloon. The bookends have a much more machined, cylindrical look to them.

    2. Well, not burst your balloon… but these balloons, as depicted, have 4 ends. Making them even more rare than the elusive 3 ender of which you speak.

  7. What a combination – an entertaining but not terribly important (except in his own estimation and that of the twitterati) artist plus shamelessy greedy, rapacious philistine lawyers. Do I smell hubris in the air?

  8. I am going to paint a picture and frame it. Then sue anyone who produces any paintings with Picture Frames, because I used one myself!

  9. Expecting anyone to respect the work and earning power of others is an outdated principal. Just ask Goldman Sacks if they would like to be forced to play on a level playing field. Everyone wants to eat everyone else’s lunch while enjoying free and exclusive police protection of their lunch box.

  10. Judging from the former Koons works, I would expect him to own the rights to cumshot photos as wll. Let´s see how that works out.

  11. I’ve never liked Jeff Koons. I like balloon animals. I live in San Francisco. Guess who has two thumbs and is about to get balloon animal bookends at Park Life? Minus one for copyright!

  12. OK. No offense. I know this makes me look stupid, because any
    time you argue that “something is not art” or “i hate [Insert
    Famous Artist Name HERE]” you are, by definition, “wrong”, but:
    I hate Koons. And his insipid silvery balloon dogs. In all their
    manifestations. And have from the moment I saw them. He’s always
    struck me as the guy who, when he’s at a dinner party, brags that
    anything he makes is art, or Art. That given three random objects
    called out from the audience, he will sketch out on the spot
    a Piece of Art (a piece of something) that will be accepted as such.
    And he does, and it is, because its shiny and metal and priced over
    $350k and, hey, its a Koons! Do critics or the buying masses every
    just say, “Oh wait, we made a mistake. Our bad.” It’s just amazing
    he’s now somehow in the canon, and, it’s too late. He’ll always be an
    American Master. “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” will always be a
    masterpiece, valued in the millions of dollars.

    I love, for example, Duchamp, Warhol, Basquiat, Lichtenstein. I’m not
    like Morley Safer or something, who criticizes everything after
    Impressionism. “Back in my day, we knew what real art was!” No,
    that’s not my bag. It’s just this IS the time where the emperor
    gets away, for years, with wearing no clothes, and noone ever calls
    him on it.

    So it’s with some satisfaction I see this Koons prove that
    he’s an a-hole by laying claim to the entire domain of balloon art.
    To respect the art, you have to respect the person. And, by these
    actions, Koons appears ridiculous and unworthy. Perhaps, his art
    may be also. And, after a decent interval, it may be returned, via
    parcel post, for a full refund from its creator.

    It’s all the more ironic that he’s suing others, when he himself has
    been arguing that its ok for _him_ to “sample” other’s work:

    1. What the wikipedia article doesn’t state without more click-thru on the infringement suit with Koons is that he ripped off another artist who had produced a kitschy image of a string of puppies. He based his work on a photo in commercial distribution by Art Rogers. Koons lost the infringement suit because his derivative work was not considered to match criteria for fair use as commentary or parody.

      For detail:

      What is different about the current round with Koons on the prosecution side is that his large balloon sculptures are based on a folk form. His motion to claim ownership on this form is the equivalent of telling a woodworker that you cannot make a three legged stool.

      The only claim he might have is if the designs in question are *exact* replicas of his works, made to scale. They don’t appear to be replicas; they are another representation of balloon dog.

      Next thing we know he’ll claim the virgin mary and all of icon art, except with Michael Jackson and Bubbles doing the Pieta.

      Get over it Koons.

    2. I can’t say I see much difference between what Koons does and what Lichtenstein and Warhol did. All of them made careers and estates for themselves by cynically and derisively appropriating the work of artists who worked much harder and much more honestly for nowhere near the money that these self styled “high artists” made off of them. Hell, I’ll give Koons a leg up over Lichtenstein because some of his sculpture and metallurgy displays craftsmanship and originality and Warhol at least created a studio space for other artists who did some genuinely inventive work.

      Duchamp and Basquiat were geniuses.

      1. “[Warhol]… made [a] career and estate for himself by cynically and derisively appropriating the work of artists who worked much harder and much more honestly for nowhere near the money that these self styled “high artists” made off of them.”

        Not true in Warhol’s case. Mr Warhol was a very successful illustrator and commercial artist for some time before he moved into ‘fine art’.

        He at least was very much one of those unsung “unknown hard-working commercial artists” himself: and that adds to his later works.

        As far as Mr Warhol is concerned, don’t be fooled: nobody in fine art was doing what he was doing when he started doing it.

        And he himself had for long been a successful fully-employed very busy commercial artist by the time he re-created himself as a “fine artist”.

        For Mr Warhol, art was always work:

        And he was/is right about that.

        1. I get that nobody was doing Pop Art in the Fine Art world when Warhol did what he did, but I don’t think that makes the work any more legitimate. If the Fine Art world couldn’t see the design sense in a Brilo Box without Warhol making it safe for them to consider it, that speaks to the poverty of the Fine Art world.

      2. Would you describe Calvin Klein as a tailor?

        You do know that the “metallurgy & craftsmanship” of Koons sculpture is all the work of people who aren’t Koons, right?

        To my knowledge he’s never personally “made” anything.
        He’s head of design firm.

        He “appropriates” a concept, and then every stage of the design and craftsmanship is done by his employees.

        Koons is not an artist.
        He’s a CEO who has branded a corporation as an artist.

      3. Hint: Koons doesn’t actually craft the metallurgy himself. he’s pretty much purely conceptual. And lame.

        1. Koons doesn’t actually craft the metallurgy himself.

          I won’t defend Koons in this copyright case but there’s nothing wrong with a fine artist who depends on other skilled craftspeople for final production. No single person could have created the Statue of Liberty even if they had all the necessary skill sets to do so but Frédéric Bartholdi still deserves credit as “artist.” The art world is filled with sculptors who depend on foundries to make the final versions of their work.

          1. The art world is filled with sculptors who depend on foundries to make the final versions of their work.

            Yea, and I think that’s kind of a shame. I really like the DIY/maker ethic, and before art became Art, it was a craft.

            I’m really impressed with people who can make incredible things. “Idea people”… not so much. Ideas are easy; creating is something different.

            Mr Koons is kind of impressive as a business man, but personally it’s not a domain I find too interesting. Actually, I don’t find art too interesting any more. Too many Koons and Faireys…

          2. Yea, and I think that’s kind of a shame. I really like the DIY/maker ethic, and before art became Art, it was a craft.

            You make it sound like this is a new phenomenon in art, but even the Renaissance Masters used assistants and craftspeople for those purposes. Doing the creative stuff and outsourcing the technical work frees up the artist to create more work overall.

          3. I like some of Koonz work. I also think that if he is behind this stupidity then he deserves any insulting epithet that comes his way.

            That said, painters such as Rubens:


            would also ‘outsource’ some of their work :))

            Not wishing to get into an not/art argument (I took some art theory classes during my undergrad to learn how to identify wankers and to help better appreciate art :)) I would say that if people buy it because they believe it to be art…none of which takes away from the fact that if he’s involved in, or doesn’t prevent this stupidity, then he will only damage his own image.

          4. That’s fair, I definitely agree to a level that work can be outsourced and be considered art. But one has to bear in mind whether the concept itself is worthy of the efforts put into it. I think, often in Koons’ case, the answer is that it’s not. Don’t get me wrong–this doesn’t diminish the quality of the craftsmanship, but Koons doesn’t get credit for that.

            We have to draw the line between arts and crafts somewhere. (Even if it is semi-permeable.)

      4. I can’t say I see much difference between what Koons does and what Lichtenstein and Warhol did.

        Well, as far as I know Lichtenstein never sued a comic book company, and Warhol was on pretty good terms with Campbell’s.

        What’s more, while I absolutely don’t agree with the fetish that the art world has made out of new, if you are going to make a fetish out it, you have to award points to the people who got there first.

        Duchamp gets most of the points; very little new has been done since Dada. So I think the art world just needs to get over it and move onto a new phase.

      5. Unfortunately Koons does not actually do any of the construction work. So any craftsmanship in his work is not his own craftsmanship.

    3. I came in here to say EXACTLY this. Couldn’t agree with you more.

      Although now I am left wondering if I should try and sue YOU for taking the words right off of my keyboard….

    4. You are not stupid for evaluating Koons or his art. Many casual and professional critics of art explicitly share your views. Below your comment, Patient (#17) linked to an article referring to “the gray area between art as aesthetic thesis and art as cultural document.” Koons has basically said that there are no artistic theses for his works, no meaning beyond them as objects. In other words, they are cultural documents, but documenting what about which culture?

      On the Jeff Koons wiki page, NYT writer Michael Kimmelman says of Koons’ work “[It is] one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the 1980s”. The existence of the nouveau riche and their inflationary ‘tastes’ are not limited to the 1980s of course, but I am inclined to believe that even if they refuse to admit, “Oh wait, we made a mistake. Our bad,” future buyers and critics will wonder, “What on earth were they thinking?”

  13. I had an artist friend that snatched Mr Koon’s champagne glass out of his hand before a toast, raised it high and stated loudly, “To Jeff Koons… Fuck Jeff Koons!”

    Its always a privilege to meet someone that is actually willing to do what everyone else daydreams of doing. Thanks Colin.

  14. When I come upon Jeff Koons I am immediately aware of the very fine line between clever and stupid.

  15. While I do not necessarily think Koons’ actions are appropriate or required I do feel it is reasonable to say that in this context Park Life is infringing on Koons domain.

    Jeff Koons is one of the worlds most prominent artists and one of his most famous works was his balloon dogs series. Now an art gallery is creating more balloon dogs. They have been described as “mini-Koons.” The context of being an art gallery causes the new work of Park Life to be inextricably linked to the old work of Koons.

    I support the copyfight but appropriation in one’s art does not mean forfeiture of copyright.

    1. Perhaps this case could set a precedent and the Estate of Marcel Duchamp could finally receive compensation for the misappropriation of millions of his Fountains.

    2. The context of being an art gallery causes the new work of Park Life to be inextricably linked to the old work of Koons.

      This is a load.

  16. Also I don’t think that Koons is going to be deprived of earnings because someone bys a $20 book-end instead of a bazillion dollar original Koons work.

  17. think i’ll start up as a children’s entertainer, and then sue koons.

    not for the balloon dogs though – just because he’s shit.

    now where’s my clown outfit…

  18. Final point: Mr Warhol’s later portraits of the rich and famous (done for commission income – a working artist, as I indicted above) have yet to be fully appreciated, IMHO.

    They constitute, and must be considered as, one large set or series, and ought to be displayed as such.

  19. As to the topic at hand.

    Working artists who have made a name for themselves know what that name cost to create.

    Like any business, thewich to maintain the value of that which they have created.

    Mr Koons is free to attempt to use the Courts, as is any citizen, if he feels that to do so will help him to preserving the value of his name. Without looking at many more details, I can have no opinion as to the merits of his specific claim.

    But as far as any effect that this baloon-dog claim may have on Mr Koons’ “brand” ….well, didn’t Andy Warhol once say that in some cases, “Any publicity is good publicity”?

    PS: I like some of Mr Koons’ work, but I haven’t seen a lot of it.

  20. I don’t think Koons should be mentioned as an “artist” unless the appropriate “con-” prefix is attached.

  21. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “Art is anything you can get away with”.

    It appears that copyright attorneys feel the same way about the application of copyright law.

    1. No no it was not “art” but “business”.
      Or was it “politics”? or “religion”?

      “Baseball is what you can get away with.” Didn’t Casey Stengel say that?

      Like many of McLuhan’s nostrums, one size apparently fits all.

  22. He should go back to Wall St. from where he was spawned. He’ll fit right back in and no one in the art world or the real world will miss him.

  23. That nothin’…years ago I knew a guy who owned a balloon and -get this- he had a sister who actually drew a picture of a dog once, so I claim prior art. I will now sue for the rights to all balloons, dogs, and sisters in teh universe. Mortals, tremble in fear of my army of lawyers!

  24. Koons’s whole schtick seems to be “My art is in making crap and daring to point out how it’s really crap, except it’s art, too!” I tend to take the more simple view of his work and just call it crap.

  25. Koons is such a schlock meister. I’ve kind of admired how he gets paid and gets laid from his bright and shiny bullshit, “hey, good on ‘ya”, kind of thing. And the giant dog topiary was a kick, in Rockefeller Center a few years ago. It was big, unexpected, lent a madcap air to a summer afternoon in the big city. Like a lot of his crap, big, bright, shiny, accessible, “wow, Michael Jackson and his crazy monkey”, in a fucking museum! Wow!!
    But he’s just a money grubbing shit stirring hack, isn’t he?

  26. Koons is probably more shrewd than is given credit. I bet the lawsuit is just the first act of a man trying to wheedle a cut from where he deserves none.

  27. Cory states, “having built a career on the flexibilities in copyright law that allow artists to make transformative use of the works around them, Koons now wishes to terminate those flexibilities and award himself exclusive rights over all the works he’s made, and the works that inspired them.”

    A masterfully composed and succinct observation.

    Thank you:)

  28. I hope they call Steve Martin as a witness. He works himself up in a lather (while making a balloon dog of course) and then says “Well, Excuuuse Me.”

  29. ‘If’ Jeff knows anything about this then he should be ashamed…however, if his agents/people are doing it on his behalf then he needs to kick some ass and tell them to stop being a bunch of corporate money grabbing assholes.
    Come on Jeff, get a bloody grip!

  30. This artistic infringement suit seems to me like a larger commentary on all artistic infringement suits. So many artists — whether sculptors, painters, writers, musicians, etc. — want to pretend that their works sprang from their brows fully formed, with no other progenitors. Oh, they might have had a little inspiration here and there, but that’s just inspiration; they could’ve done something very similar without any help at all.

    Except that we all know this is bullshit. Every work of art created today is built on an ancient foundation of prior works. At some arbitrary point we decide that an idea is sufficiently divergent from that foundation to be considered a new work, but that point is always arbitrary and always open to question.

    Cory’s clever witticism about pirates wanting to be admirals reminds us that laziness and greed are always there to convert today’s dangerous young turks into tomorrow’s entrenched old farts.

  31. Just so you all know Koons is a hack and does not make his own art. Most or all of his sculptures are made at a factory outside of LA…He is a suit and to defend him by saying that what he does is clever or an ongoing performance art piece is a disservice to hard working and dedicated artists. Although He does provide interesting discussion material for critique.

  32. >Koons’s lawyers argue that since Koons once produced a set of iconic statues of balloon dogs, all representations of balloon dogs are henceforth Koons’s exclusive purview, and anyone who makes or sells a balloon dog infringes on Koons’s copyright.

    I heard Koons also demanded that everyone, worldwide, cease and desist being or acting like a self-important douchebag.

  33. Just heard about this. Copyright and trademark law have gotten beyond ridiculous.

    We’re having the same kind of problem here on the east coast, in Baltimore City, where a businesswoman appears to have lied on her trademark application so that she could get exclusive rights to use the word “hon” (a very old Baltimore term of endearment) in commerce. Since she received the trademark, she has done the same kind of overreaching that Koons is doing.

    You can find out more about our troubles at

  34. Actually, commercial sewing patterns ARE covered by copyright, like any other published works. It’s the concept of the design that cannot be protected.

  35. If he gets the rights I will feel bad for all the clowns and balloon makers who make balloon dogs for little kids…jeez

  36. I’m with Anon #6. I truly believe that this is performance art. I think I might be alone on this thread in that I like Koons. He pushes the envelope. He has been sued for ridiculous reasons. Now he is turning the tables. The fact that everyone who has seen his work has a strong opinion is a testament to his genius and this act is just another example.

  37. I’m going to buy a set of these bookends just to piss off Jeff Koons, the shameless hack. Next thing we’ll see is Fernando Botero is going to claim he should get a cut of the profits made from immensely fat people, since he so obviously invented them.

  38. @ Leslie

    The concept of “performance art’ is now applied to every human endeavor possible in the physical world.

    It ceases to have any meaning at this point

  39. Reminds me of Alfred E. Neuman. Kurtzman used a piece of old advertising art — clip art, if you will — and it gradually became a sort of MAD character in its own right, and was given a name (several, actually, but Alfred E. Neuman is the one that stuck).

    Then, catastrophe: they were sued by someone who claimed prior ownership of the character design. Lawyers were consulted, old sources were inspected, and they argued successfully in court that that face was in the public domain, and they could use it as they saw fit.

    So what happened a few years later? Someone else tried to use that PD face for something. And who sued them? MAD. On what basis? It was Theirs, and nobody else’s. And so the brave underdog prevails and becomes the next bloated balloon dog in the manger. True story.

  40. it’s a “balloon dog eat balloon dog” world out there. everyone’s doing everything everyone else is doing. it’s how it goes in art.

    i had created photographs called “monitorheads” (thumbnails at ). and i see alot of people doing the same, however i’d rather parallel artists doing the same than to overpower them.

    in fact, i wrote to G4’s Attack of the Show! way back when, commenting how their mannequins with monitors on their heads were fantastic! never heard back, but just the same, never received a cease and desist letter. so all is good.

    keep on balloon doggin it!

  41. Wouldn’t this be like the Andy Warhol estate suing Campbell’s because they’re still producing tomato soup with the same label Andy made famous?

  42. Alright, I don’t know who could make this happen, but, I would like to see this… Somebody who is a working clown, you know, one who is hired to go to parties and such, who has been making balloon dogs for some years before Koons made his statue, should sue Koons for infringement.

  43. I think that Groucho Marx pretty much settled this question long ago with his response to Jack Warner of Warner Brothers Pictures in regards to his complaint about the use of the word “Casablanca.”

    Warner sent a letter to the Marx Brothers telling them that they couldn’t title their film “A NIght in Casablanca” because Warner Bros. had already made the highly successful film “Casablanca,” and therefore that word was not to be used again.

    Groucho responded to Warner with a letter stating that he must cease using the word “Brothers” in the name Warner Bothers, since the Marx Brothers had been using that word for far longer than Warner Brothers had.

    With an archetypal image like this it just doesn’t seem possible to claim copyright. Imagine if Robert Therrien claimed copyright on all chairs of a certain shape because he’d once made a giant version of that archetypal chair shape?

    Perhaps if these balloon dogs were a shiny red color that perfectly borrowed from Mr. Koons’ sculpture he would have a claim. But it doesn’t look that way from the image above.

    Love the balloon dog though, Mr. Koonz. I remember the first time I saw it in Venice in the Broad Foundation space. Wonderful image.

  44. so does that mean Mr.Koons thinks that all of we little less than he sculptors should be allowed to have copy write over say human forms or how about fingers and toes and mouths. I think he needs to seek attention else where.

  45. You all realize, of course, that this is just another of his ‘conceptual art’ self-marketing schemes? The point isn’t to win the lawsuit at all, assuming he has any chance, even with American lawyers. ;)

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