Before Elon Musk got distracted by creating a child-sized SpaceX rescue sub to save the Thai boys stuck in a cave, the Tesla CEO was in a twit snit with the daughter of an artist who’d created a farting unicorn. Those tweets are down now, but Tom Edwards, the Evergreen potter who challenged the genius billionaire for stealing his image, is still waiting for compensation. “I hope I don’t have to dance around the Cherry Creek mall in a unicorn outfit to get his attention,” he says.
Edwards is in his tiny Wallyware pottery studio, where sixty farting-unicorn mugs are set for the kiln: Art lovers around the world started ordering them after Westword broke the story of the farting-unicorn fiasco on June 26, a story that was picked up by media outlets ranging from Fortune to The Guardian and the BBC. J.K. Rowling even weighed in on Twitter, calling the dispute the “spin-off you knew you never wanted.”
After that, Musk’s lawyers finally called Edwards's attorney, and the two sides started talking. “Last week we gave them a reasonable offer,” says Edwards. “They didn’t go for that, and so now they’re looking at a different way to establish the value of my artwork.”
That artwork is a whimsical drawing Edwards designed in 2010 for a mug. It shows a unicorn passing gas into a hose that seemingly powers an electric car, along with the message: “Electric cars are good for the environment because electricity comes from magic.” In February 2017, Musk tweeted that it was “maybe my favorite mug ever.”
Two months later, an exact copy of Edwards’s whimsical design showed up in the Tesla’s operating system, as an icon on the touchscreen to rev up the automobile’s sketchpad. The unicorn even appeared in the company’s 2017 Christmas message.
No one ever asked Edwards if Tesla could use the image; he only found out that it had after a friend bought a Tesla and recognized the unicorn. “These companies are like giant elephants that are just stepping on ants,” says Edwards. “They don’t feel obligated to acknowledge the artists who are selling their work, and that’s just wrong.”
Last month, Edwards and copyright attorney Tim Atkinson took action, sending a "Power of Magic" letter to Tesla asking for compensation. “Please don’t take this as a shakedown,” Atkinson urges in the document. “What we are seeking instead is a discussion, and a mutual decision to value the past and continuing use of the image, in a way that both sides can feel good about.”
They heard nothing back, but as the story went viral, Musk did respond to Edwards’s daughter, Robin (a former Westword contributor), who tweeted as her musical alter ego, Lisa Prank, accusing Musk of ripping off her dad’s art. “He can sue for money if he wants, but that’s kinda lame,” Musk tweeted in response. “If anything, this attention increased his mug sales.” That tweet has since disappeared, as have all of Musk’s tweets to Lisa Prank.
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By then, of course, Musk was on to other things, including his Thai cave rescue plan (which earned him a dig from Conan O'Brien: "Elon Musk didn’t save the Thai soccer team, but he will put them on a Tesla waitlist") and resolving some problems with the production of Tesla’s Model 3. In May, Musk had blamed the media for asking “boring” questions; the farting unicorn has prompted more unusual questions lately, but so far neither Musk nor his representatives have responded to queries about the pilfered image, which is still trapped in the Tesla.
“Are there software people scrambling to get that off the car?” Edwards wonders. “And if it goes away, will there be people saying, ‘We liked the unicorn. Bring it back!’?”
Edwards has been both lauded and criticized for his fight for compensation from the electric-car CEO. For every person who says he deserves to be paid for his art, another berates him for trying to make a buck off of a billionaire over a farting unicorn. But Edwards shrugs off the social-media blowback.
“Some tech geeks have said it’s just a dumb cartoon,” he notes. “Well, how would the tech geek feel if that was his source code that got stolen?”