Credit: Philadelphia Parks & Rec

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Philadelphians won’t find any LOVE beneath their Christmas trees this year.

The keepsakes made of reclaimed LOVE Park granite are still in legal limbo, according to an email sent by the Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation this week.

“We wanted to let people know it’s not going to be resolved before Christmas,” Parks & Rec spokesperson Jennifer Crandall told Billy Penn Wednesday. “Because a lot of people wanted to use these as gifts.”

Back in November, the city announced it would be selling a limited 250-piece run of the collectibles, each etched with the likeness of Robert Indiana’s famous sculpture and sold for $50. Proceeds were to go toward future skateparks and other Parks & Rec projects.

But on the morning of the sale, after hundreds had already lined up for a chance to purchase the mementos, it was called off at the last minute. Instead of walking away with a cute block perfect for a holiday gift, people were asked to leave their email addresses to be contacted in the future.

At issue was the LOVE sculpture copyright — a subject convoluted by a half-century’s worth of misunderstanding.

When Indiana first created the iconic image in the 1960s, with its tilted O and letters arranged in quadrants, U.S. copyright law was different. Whereas now an artist is automatically granted a copyright to their own work, prior to the Copyright Act of 1976, that wasn’t the case unless a notice was explicitly attached.

Because Indiana did not attach one to his first LOVE artworks, the image fell into the public domain. As he relayed to Departures magazine four years ago:

The great disappointment was that I didn’t know enough about copyright, and my work wasn’t properly copyrighted. So I had all these rip-offs, and everybody presumed I was getting terribly wealthy because LOVE was popping up all over the world. That happened very quickly. And painfully.

After the law change in the 1970s, Indiana reportedly worked hard to recapture his copyright, and eventually was successful. But because there still are so many unauthorized versions out there, many people assume the image is still in the public domain.

That’s apparently what happened at Parks & Rec.

No details are being released about who exactly contacted the city and demanded the keepsake sale be halted because proper permission had not been granted, but the email update sent to the 254 addresses collected on Nov. 24 refers to it as “an organization representing the intellectual property interests of artists.”

Here’s the Parks & Rec email, in its entirety:

The City of Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation (PPR) sincerely apologizes for the inconvenience caused by the delay in selling the “LOVE Park” granite collectibles for which you so patiently waited in line on Friday, November 24. As PPR previously announced, these granite blocks were meant to raise funds for the future of LOVE Park and coincidentally made wonderful gift ideas for the holiday season.

PPR was notified by an organization representing the intellectual property interests of artists that we did not have permission to sell this particular item with the likeness of the LOVE sculpture – the sculpture which has famously become the namesake of the park. Due to this notification, PPR immediately halted the sale of the blocks while we continued to engage in negotiation with the artists’ representatives for permission to sell them.

At this time, those discussions are still ongoing and therefore we will not be able to reinstate the sale of the granite keepsakes before this issue is resolved and permission is granted, which will not happen before the end of the year. Once again, we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this has caused and we thank you for your interest in purchasing a LOVE Park granite block, and for your support of LOVE Park and the City of Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Law Department is currently negotiating with the artists organization, Crandall said.

“It’s ongoing,” she said. “We’re trying to appeal to them to work with us. We are hoping to come to a positive resolution.”

If and when that positive resolution arrives, people on the email list will be contacted and offered the chance to buy the keepsakes in the same order they waited in line, Crandall confirmed. She also noted the department may explore offering a surrogate item if things don’t eventually work out for these particular LOVE Park mementos.

“If we have some sort of alternative to offer,” Crandall said, “they’ll be the first to know.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...