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National Geographic Society vs. Richard Pryor

While this article is about a parody cover image used as an album cover, and its revision due to copyright action by the Society, first I thought I’d lay a little background to the incident. In their 1993 analysis of the Society and its magazine entitled Reading National Geographic, Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins write the following about race, gender, and nudity:

The ‘nude’ woman sits, stands, or lounges at the salient center of National Geographic photography of the non-Western world. Until the phenomenal growth of mass circulation pornography in the 1960s, the magazine was known as the only mass culture venue where Americans could see women’s breasts. Part of the folklore of Euramerican [sic] men, stories about secret perusals of the magazine emerge time after time in our conversations with male National Geographic readers.

They continue on this topic with the following:

Such stories also exist (in a more charged, ironic mode) in the popular culture of African Americans – for example, in Richard Pryor’s characterization, in his comedy routines, of National Geographic as the black man’s Playboy.

While searching for the 1968 self-titled album “Richard Pryor” to add to my collection of parody covers, I discovered there were, in fact, two versions of this album in existence and available. Knowing that Pryor had a “history” with the Society, this led me to do a little research. I found this on Wikipedia under “List of Controversial Album Art”, subsection “Copyright”:

Richard Prior – Richard Pryor (1968)

The debut album of comedian Richard Pryor was recorded live at The Troubadour in West Hollywood, California. The cover was art-directed and designed by Gary Burden. According to Burden, "As a result of the Richard Pryor album cover, which I loved doing, I got two letters: One was a letter from the National Geographic Society’s attorneys offering to sue me for defaming their publication. The second letter was a Grammy nomination for the best album cover.”

The citation used for this Wiki entry is Gary Burden’s web page:

Gary is the artist who designed the album cover. On his site he describes the process of making the album cover right up to the threatened lawsuit:

When I was hired to design an album cover for Richard Pryor I was warned to be careful because he was kind of “out there”. I was cautioned not to go too far with what he said because he could be off the deep-end. They stressed that they needed a real record cover.

Henry and I went to his house one morning, knocked on the door and his wife answered. She said, “You go try to get him up he won’t get out of bed.” We had never met him before. We said, “Hey Richard, we’re here to take your picture.” We were standing over him, looking down at him and he said, “Just take it here in bed. This will be the cover - me sleeping, you know.”

He had been a little standoffish when we first met him. I noticed that at the time, he was making a documentary about black people taking over the world and he had storyboards on his wall of black warriors mowing down the white pigs. Eventually, though, Richard mentioned that he would like to do something kind of Roots-y. This was before the television series.

I thought, roots for Richard would be some kind of tribal thing, an African thing. So I got the idea to get authentic African artifacts and weapons and things from a store, which was called 49 Steps. They had real, museum quality artifacts. It was logical to go there to find things that would fit the idea of a tribal bushman. We were in the middle, mind you, of mansions in Beverly Hills. Everything was entirely civilized.

I was thinking we would have to go out to Topanga Canyon or Malibu or somewhere out of town to find a location that looked at all real, but Richard said that he knew where there was a cave right near there in Beverly Hills, just in the foothills. It looked perfect. I thought that all of the artifacts would be fine the bow and arrow, the necklace and the belt and all that but I had some reservation about asking him to put in the authentic, brass nose-ring. I thought that might be pushing it a little too far. I finally sucked it up and asked him how he felt about it and he immediately went for it in a huge way.

With some artists, taking them to a place, in a situation, asking them to do something, it can be a little intimidating when they disappear into a character. He wanted to be even more deeply into this bushman and more authentic. I found charred sticks from a previous fire that had burned through those hills, and placed them like it was his little fire in front of his home. Totally in character, he became very protective over that spot. Aiming his bow and arrow at us in a threatening manner. Seeing how primitive he looked, the photos suggested to me the look of National Geographic so I had my friend Rick Griffin, may he rest in peace, do artwork that looks like their magazine border, he made a very elaborate drawing. The cover looked totally real, like a cover of National Geographic.

As a result of the Richard Pryor album cover, which I loved doing, I got two letters: One was a letter from the National Geographic Society’s attorneys offering to sue me for defaming their publication. The second letter was a Grammy nomination for the best album cover.

Because of this legal action or, at least, threat of legal action the cover was modified. While the “yellow border” was kept (I guess you can’t copyright a color) the inner border of oak and olive leaves was replaced. The revised border has the Statue of Liberty repeated in what looks like a lined ruler. Whether or not this was done as a protest against the Society’s action, I haven’t a clue. What I can say is that the “new” cover looked enough like a National Geographic cover to get the idea across to the customer while not being a direct copyright violation.

This may be the only parody cover out there with an alternate version. As to whether this revision was the result of an actual lawsuit, or was done to avoid a lawsuit, I do not know. Also, I haven’t a clue as to whether the copyright action was, in part, due to the earlier characterization of the magazine by Mr. Pryor, i.e. some sort of payback. If anyone does have more information about this incident, I would love to hear from you.

Yours in Collecting,
Tom Wilson

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Well this is all very interesting to know about. I guess I always should have wondered but that the Society would have "gone after" Pryor for this parody //rip off/.

thanks, Tom !

- Scott 



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