A story went viral Wednesday about Alibaba selling a version of Jeff Koons' famous balloon dogs for only $500. But since then, the dogs have disappeared.
Koons' real balloon dogs, of course, set a record for the highest-priced work ever sold by a living artist when an orange dog sold at Christie's last fall for $58.4 million. Koons only made five of the 20-foot high sculptures.
But this week, word spread that Alibaba, the online retailer, was offering stainless steel knockoffs starting at only $500 each. That's about one one-hundredth thousandth of the Koons' price. Buyers on Alibaba could get their inflatable pups in any color and size they wanted, from 10 centimeters to more than 90 feet. (The big ones can cost as much as $5,000, but that's still a bargain.)
Did Koons intervene and does he own the balloon dog image? Yes ... and no.
Intellectual property attorneys said Koons has no legal claim on balloon dogs—even ones that look exactly like his—since balloon dogs are an everyday object and have been long before Koons came around.
As one San Francisco attorney famously wrote: "As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog, and the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain."
That comment came in response to a cease-and-desist letter that Koons LLC and his attorneys sent to the Park Life gallery in 2011 after they started selling mini-balloon dogs as bookends. Koons eventually withdrew the complaint amid a barrage of negative publicity that criticized Koons for hypocrisy, given his own history with image appropriation.
Attorneys for Park argued that balloon dogs have been made by clowns and other balloon twisters for ages so Koons couldn't claim ownership—unlike, say, for an original painting.
But Koons may have intervened in the Alibaba case because the image used on the site came from a Koons' exhibit and showed other Koons pieces behind the dog, including one of his Hulk pieces and another inflatable. Attorneys say the image may have implied Koons' consent or involvement in the VLA sale, which would be a legal breach.
Koons LLC has not yet returned a call for comment.
"If they didn't claim Koons was involved, I don't think he would have any claim," one attorney said. "But if they implied his involvement or endorsement, it's a problem."
Don't worry though. You can still buy other knockoff balloon dogs on Alibaba—they're just not as big.
—By CNBC's Robert Frank