The idea of “paying in exposure,” a.k.a. the thing that completely destabilized the journalism industry in the early-to-mid ‘00s, has been subject to pushback from writers and artists in recent years, and rightly so. Just because labor is creative in nature doesn’t mean it’s not labor. Tell that to Elon Musk—current net worth $21.1 billion, according to Forbes, up from $20.8 billion in February—who apparently not only stole an artist’s farting unicorn design and incorporated it into an app on new Teslas, he was a real dick about it when the man’s daughter confronted him on Twitter.
To back up for a moment: Tom Edwards is a Colorado ceramics artist who specializes in a sort of cartoonish, faux-naive aesthetic. One of his most popular designs is an image of a unicorn farting into a funnel that’s connected to the tailpipe of a car, with the caption “electric cars are good for the environment because electricity comes from magic.” Musk apparently found this delightful, and tweeted an image of a mug emblazoned with the image in February 2017 with the caption “maybe one of my favorite mugs ever.” (He’s since deleted that tweet.) Edwards says he got about 100 orders for the mug, which retails for $28.00 on his website, as a result.
In fact, Musk loved the image so much, he decided to use it as the icon for the “sketchpad” Easter egg on new Teslas, which Denver alt-weekly Westword describes thusly: “an app on the touch screen that comes with the latest software update, V8.1. It’s accessed by pressing the “T” three times.” He also used the image in another deleted tweet touting the sketchpad feature, and in a “Christmas card” for Tesla owners that we think appeared on the aforementioned touch screen last December 26. (We’re not sure how all that works. We don’t know anyone with the money to buy a Tesla.) Musk did all this without asking Edwards’ permission, or paying him for his work.
After finding out about all this from a friend who does have a Tesla, Edwards lawyered up, sending a formal letter he describes as “tugging on their coattails in a friendly manner”requesting a meeting with Musk. After a month with no response, Edwards have an interview to Westword about his plight. His daughter, a musician who goes by the name Lisa Prank, tweeted about it, and Musk responded. First, he threw Nik Jovanovic—a Twitter user with 196 followers who calls Musk his “hero” in his bio—under the bus, saying Jovanovic had used the sketchpad app to copy the drawing, which was then “chosen randomly by software team as a joke” that he had nothing to do with and the company “gained no financial benefit” from. He then said that Edwards “can sue for money if he wants, but that’s kinda lame. If anything, this attention increased his mug sales.”
He’s deleted his responses, but here’s Prank’s initial tweet:
So yeah, although Musk could send Edwards $50,000—or $5,000,000, for that matter—for the use of his design and not even notice it was gone, instead he’s choosing to double down on “paying in exposure” because suing a billionaire to get him to pay you for your work is “kinda lame.” Note that back in May, Musk criticized Spotify for its “crazy low payouts” to artists. But maybe that only matters if he’s dating the artist in question?
Recently, Edwards created a new version of his mug featuring the Tesla Musk launched into space instead of paying him. That’s for sale on his website, if you’d like to support him directly.