Web Exclusive

Elon Musk & The Case of the Farting Unicorn

Tesla and its billionaire founder settled with a ceramic artist in a copyright dispute involving an image of a farting unicorn.

“Elon Musk & The Case of the Farting Unicorn” is not, as it might first seem, the dubious title of a young readers mystery novel.

Rather, it is the jumping off point for a story involving branding, promotion, the billionaire, a Colorado potter, pop punker Lisa Prank, copyright law, and unavoidably, farting unicorns.

Ceramic artist Tom Edwards created the mug on the right. Tesla used the image on the left, based on Edwards’ design, without the artist’s permission. A resulting copyright dispute settled out of court.

Quick version: Colorado-based Ceramic artist Tom Edwards hired a lawyer to take on Tesla and its founder Elon Musk because the electric carmaker used, without permission, Edwards’ designs of farting unicorns in Tesla’s sketchpad app during demonstrations and as an icon in the interface of Tesla cars. The case recently settled out of court. Tesla has reportedly paid for the right to use the farting unicorn image, which remains in the automakers’ cars. The image initially appeared on a mug Edwards created.

Apparently, Musk was peace on the settlement, as this tweet indicates:

Still here? Cool. The longer version:

Edwards’ mugs depict a unicorn passing gas into a container that, in his explanation, then goes through a cord to power an electric car. On the back of the mug is written, “Electric cars are good for the environment because electricity comes from magic.” Musk caught wind of the mugs – pun more or less intended – and tweeted praise for them.

The attention from the go-zillionaire with umpteen-bazillion Twitter followers (about 22.2 million actually) helped accelerate sales for Edwards for a bit. The potter appreciated that. What he didn’t appreciate was Musk/Tesla later using his design without his permission. Neither did his daughter Robin Edwards, a pop punk musical recording artist who performs under the name Lisa Prank. Prank called out Musk on Twitter.

Musk replied that he asked his team to not use the image going forward and said Edwards could sue him, “but that’s kinda lame. If anything, this attention increased his mug sales.” Musk also maintained, at the time, that he had offered to pay Edwards, but Prank said that was a bunch of malarkey. Anyhow, Edwards eventually enlisted the help of a lawyer, who at first was reportedly stonewalled by Tesla. Still, all came good in the end with the settlement, as Edwards noted in a statement on his website:

“I am happy to report that we have reached an agreement with Tesla that resolves our issues in a way that everyone feels good about! It’s clear there were some misunderstandings that led to this escalating, but I’m just glad that everything has been cleared up. I’ve always been a Tesla fan, and I’m looking forward to getting back to making pots and selling them in my online store.”

Edwards posted this pic to accompany his statement:

Image by Tom Edwards.

There are probably a lot of takeaways from the case of the farting unicorn – many of them involving bad puns and juvenile jokes. Most notable, perhaps, is this: Not even billionaires and mega-brands are above copyright law, and artists/designers should be properly compensated for their work. It’s a good lesson to be reminded of in the promotional products industry.