Two Moral Rights Suits over Public Murals

The now-destroyed Community Faces mural in Pittsburgh depicting artists, their relatives, and people from the community. Multiple artists created the work.

Artists have brought suit in Pittsburgh and Memphis over the destruction of public murals. Both suits involve the use of blighted buildings and spaces which have come under development. As these areas character changes, or as attitudes about the public art shift, City officials and landowners have removed, distorted, or even destroyed public murals.

In Memphis, as part of a 135 mural installation organized by Paint Memphis, seven murals drew the attention of Memphis City officials, and were painted over near the end of January in 2018 as part of a “miscommunication”.

Memphis City Council officials say they have received complaints about some of the murals, and want to allow residents to vet the murals before they are erected in public spaces.

A similar dispute involving mural artist Kyle Holbrook has taken place in Pittsburgh. Holbrook alleges that property owners, the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and others have destroyed eight of his murals on walls and buildings.

Both suits use the federal moral rights law, the Visual Artists Rights Act as a basis for remedying destruction of murals and even attempting to enjoin further destruction.

Ryan Poe, Artists sue Memphis for failed attempt to scrub “satanic” murals, Commercial Appeal, April 26, 2018, https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/government/city/2018/04/26/artists-sue-memphis-failed-attempt-scrub-satanic-murals/555788002/ (last visited May 17, 2018).

Torsten Ove, Artist sues Pittsburgh, Allegheny County for destroying murals he created on their buildings, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30, 2018, http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/art-architecture/2018/04/30/Mural-artist-Pittsburgh-Kyle-Holbrook-lawsuit-federal-Allegheny-County-destruction-contract/stories/201804300177 (last visited May 17, 2018).

Tree painting, moral right or an environmental message?

In 2013 the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) commissioned artist Konstantin Dimopoulos to create an installation called “Painted Trees” in Houston. The installation used a series of crepe myrtles embedded in one of Houston’s traffic cloverleafs at Waugh and Memorial. Dimopoulos has undertaken similar blue tree projects internationally, hoping to raise awareness for deforestation and draw attention to trees we might otherwise ignore. Here’s a short video of the artist describing the art advocacy project:

Well the artist has been surprised to discover that the work has been reprised/plagiarized/re-celebrated/repeated. Many like me had likely assumed that the artist was repeating the project. Not so, this project was an initiative of the Houston Parks and Recreation department. They painted the same grove of trees, and another grouping, blue and green.

Here’s my own photo of one of the groups I took a few weeks ago:

The Houston Parks and Recreation department painted these crepe myrtles, image from March, 2018.

The art project was a popular surprise to most five years ago. Though It always struck me as odd that the artist and City invited selfie hunters to an area without sidewalks, where you had to dodge unfriendly cars to get a close look.

According to the City, the new project was meant to draw attention to wildflower and prairie plantings that have been done in the area.  The city plants wildflowers in the area most years, and this summer red phlox should bloom amid the green and blue trunks when the crepe myrtles are also blooming. A great thing to look at, and an improvement certainly over a sad strip of roadside mown grass. But has the city of Houston managed to violate the moral rights of Dimopoulos? Or will most of the attraction be owed to the work of mother nature? Texas arts blog Glasstire noted that Dimopoulos’ wife noted in a facebook comment that:

It’s Adele Dimopoulos here, Kon’s wife and business manager. We most certainly do know about the blue trees being copied by city Parks and we are in the process of addressing this through various channels.

We are aware that there is a much bigger issue of copyright and IP for all artists at stake here. So sit tight and let’s see what shakes down.

The artist claims to own rights in the special paint formula that he developed, which is temporary, harmless to the trees, and bright blue. In response Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management is quoted in the Houston Chronicle this morning that: “We thought we did our homework”, noting he cleared the paint project with parks department planners. And the formula was a new creation of a city employee, combining lime wash and pigment. The artist Dimopolous is quoted in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, and is not a fan:

“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here”.

It seems mainly what Dimopoulos wants is an apology from the city, perhaps even removal of the pigment. ON the one hand I can certainly appreciate his position, but if his art was intended to bring attention to deforestation, the amount of water and harm to the trees perhaps shows he wasn’t all that interested in the environmental aspects of his projects. He really wanted individual attention as an artist. Nothing wrong with that of course, but when you have a relatively straightforward idea, that many other artists have likely had, perhaps you should be a little magnanimous when others attempt to carry forward your vision. Am I wrong, is the artist wrong? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

$6.7 Million Award for 5Pointz Artists

5Pointz before it was whitewashed

A federal court has held that the real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff is liable for intentionally destroying 45 works of art when they were whitewashed in 2013, amounting to a total award of $6.75 million dollars. The ruling comes as a bit of a surprise given the limited success of artists under the Visual Artists Rights Act in the past.

Jerry Wolkoff purchased the vacant factory in the 1970s in Brooklyn after manufacturing had left the area. Graffiti artists asked him for permission to display their art on the building in the 1990s, and he agreed. The building then became a haven for graffitie, even a renowned attraction. An artist Jonathan Cohen, otherwise known as Meres One, started acting as a curator of the space in 2002.

By 2013 the factory had become a valuable piece of real estate, and Wolkoff had plans to demolish the site and start a new development on the. The site had been much beloved by then, and so the artists brought suit to prevent the destruction of the art. That injunction was unsuccessful, and so Wolkoff immediately whitewashed the art, a willful act that seems to have been the primary driver for Judge Block’s scathing decision:

If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully. Given the degree of difficulty in proving actual damages, a modest amount of statutory damages would probably have been more in order.

The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.

The ruling may be appealed, but the decision marks an important precedent for works of visual art and especially works of temporary art. Landscape art, graffiti, and other similar works may be impacted by the ruling.

On one hand this ruling stands as an obvious victory for the artists themselves. But taken in the broader context, will future property developers be wary about inviting graffiti artists? Perhaps street art has become so popular and ubiquitous now, that there will not be a chilling effect of future uses of derelict buildings for graffiti exhibitions like Cohen helped create.

Moral rights and property rights on trial in Brooklyn

5Pointz before it was whitewashed

Alan Feuer reports on the opening of the jury trial brought by artists whose works were removed from the 5Pointz building back in 2013. They are seeking a remedy for the infringement of their moral rights under a federal law called the Visual Artists Rights Act.

Eric Baum, a lawyer for the artists in his opening statement told the jury:

[T]hat they would hear from several art experts that the whitewashed graffiti was indeed of “recognized stature” and that Mr. Wolkoff, no matter how generous he had been with his buildings in the past, failed to give the artists the proper 90-day notice that 5Pointz was slated to come down. Mr. Baum added that his clients never wanted to sue; they wanted to save 5Pointz. But once the complex and the art had been destroyed, he said, they had only two choices: ask for money or do nothing.

The buildings developer, Jerry Wolkoff was represented by David Ebert who in his opening statement:

[A]cknowledged that 5Pointz was a “fantastic place” — one that Mr. Wolkoff helped create — but he argued that the law in question was irrelevant. “V.A.R.A. does not protect buildings,” he said. “It protects art.

The case is a rare instance of a moral rights claim brought on behalf of artists which has made it to the merits before a jury. Bringing claims in federal court is an expensive proposition, and few of these cases survive the summary judgment stage. The case will be fascinating to watch unfold.

 

  1. Alan Feuer, At Core of 5Pointz Trial: Is Graffiti Art Protected by Law?, The New York Times, October 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/nyregion/at-core-of-5pointz-trial-is-graffiti-art-protected-by-law.html (last visited Oct 18, 2017).

Student note on the blue wave experimental protest

The Spring issue of the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property has published an interesting student note by Jaya Bajaj titled “Art, Copyright, and Activism: Could the Intersection of Environmental Art and Copyright Law Provide a New Avenue for Activists to protest Various Forms of Exploitation?” The piece works best as a thought experiment, and may be an argument used by the many detractors of moral rights for artists to further restrict the expansion of the still-developing series of rights for artists. But I find the article, and the experimental protest to be thoughtful and well-reasoned. Here’s the abstract:

In 2015, a group of activists led by Aviva Rahmani began an artistic venture known as “Blued Trees.” They painted blue sine waves onto trees along a proposed pipeline pathway, and subsequently filed for federal copyright registration. They hoped to use copyright law and the Visual Artists Rights Act as a sword against fossil fuel companies. Although the piece was destroyed later that year as part of the pipeline construction, the “Blued Trees” movement continues. This note will discuss Rahmani’s legal theory and consider this theory’s strengths and weaknesses. This experimental protest brings forth a number of unanswered questions about the nature of copyright law. It is no secret that contemporary art forms, and the mediums involved, are becoming increasingly diverse. Therefore, this note also seeks to address the merits and limitations of current copyright law in terms of environmental and installation art.

Jaya Bajaj, Art, Copyright, and Activism: Could the Intersection of Environmental Art and Copyright Law Provide a New Avenue for Activists to Protest Various Forms of Exploitation?, 15 Nw. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 53 (2017).

The Sad State of Moral Rights in the United States

Did Peter Doig paint this in 1976?
Did Peter Doig paint this in 1976?

Many nations assign to artists moral rights over their creations. One of the core moral rights is the right to claim or exclude works of art in your body of work. But not in the United States. NPR reports on the bizarre case involving Peter Doig and the art he’s trying to disclaim.

Federal Judge To Rule On Whether Peter Doig Painted Desert Landscape, NPR.org, http://www.npr.org/2016/08/23/491024818/federal-judge-to-rule-on-whether-peter-doig-painted-desert-landscape.

Muddling Artist’s Moral Rights

A now-faded and defaced bicentennial mural painted on the Prado Dam spillway in Corona, California
A now-faded and defaced bicentennial mural painted on the Prado Dam spillway in Corona, California.

The National Historic Preservation Act has come to the rescue of this mural from 1976, which is badly in need of conservation. But in the process a federal court has muddled the Moral Rights of Artists moving forward. The mural on the Prado Dam near Corona, California was painted by High School students from Corona High School. The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dam and spillway planned to remove the mural over concerns of lead paint, tagged graffiti artists who replaced the 1776 with “TOPS”. Carolina Miranda reported for the L.A. Times in June that the image “has become one of the region’s more iconic, unofficial freeway landmarks”. Two groups sought protection in Federal Court for the mural, both the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, and one of the original artists and designers of the mural, Ronald Kammeyer.

Nicholas O’Donnell summarizes a recent lawsuit in California which sought to protect this mural. He comes to the conclusion that the Court managed to misunderstand some of the key provisions of the act:

First, the Court accepted (and perhaps the government failed even to understand to challenge) that the plaintiffs have any VARA rights at all.  They almost certainly do not.  VARA rights exist from the date of creation and for the life of the author.  They cannot be assigned or inherited.  That standard applies, as with most laws, to anything created after the effective date of the statute.  But what about earlier works?  The Supreme Court has long held that statutes do not have retroactive effect unless they say so explicitly.  VARA does, but in an usual way:

‘With respect to works of visual art created before the effective date set forth in section 610(a) of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, but title to which has not, as of such effective date, been transferred from the author, the rights conferred by subsection (a) shall be coextensive with, and shall expire at the same time as, the rights conferred by section 106.’

The mural predates the effective date of VARA, obviously.  So the plaintiffs—if they are the “Author”—could only assert VARA rights if they had not transferred title to the physical work (not the copyright, which one or more of them undoubtedly still holds).  But none of the plaintiffs claimed to own the mural, either when it was painted or now.  Someone, possibly Kammeyer alone, possibly Kammeyer jointly with the volunteers who helped him, owns the copyright.  That will endure either alone or as joint work, under the term of copyright.  But could any of them claim to have owned title to the physical work in 1976?  On a federally-owned flood management dam?  It seems a stretch.

The opinion misses this threshold question entirely.  Second, VARA is absolutely a “lifelong” veto when it applies.  That is exactly what it is supposed to endow on the artist.

Good writing matters, both in drafting judicial opinions and also in drafting legislation. The Court and attorneys could be given at least a little reprieve from us as the act it self is terribly arcane. Congress did us no favors when drafting this piece of legislation. I have to agree with O’Donnell—when there are so few judicial opinions in the United States which take up the moral rights of artists, to miss so badly on some key provisions is a missed opportunity.

The Court ultimately upheld the injunction on the basis of the National Historic Preservation Act as the Army Corps of Engineers failed to comply with that act’s “stop, look, and listen provision” which requires federal agencies to “make a reasonable and good faith effort to identify historic properties”. But not before muddling the slowly diminishing respect for the moral rights of artists under VARA.

  1. Kammeyer v. Oneida Total Integrated Enterprises, No. EDCV15869JGBKKX, 2015 WL 5031959 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2015).
  2. Nicholas O’Donnell, New VARA Ruling Muddies Analysis on Moral Rights and Significance of “Site Specific” Art Art Law Report (2015), http://www.artlawreport.com/2015/11/12/new-vara-ruling-muddies-analysis-on-moral-rights-and-significance-of-site-specific-art/.
  3. Carolina A. Miranda, Court order halts destruction of Prado Dam bicentennial mural in Corona latimes.com (2015), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-restraining-order-temporarily-halts-destruction-of-40-year-old-mural-on-prado-dam-20150609-column.html .

Buccafusco on Copyright authorship

Christopher Buccafusco, a Professor at Cardozo Law School has posted on SSRN a draft of his work forthcoming in the Virginia Law Review titled “Copyright Authorship”. From the abstract:

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to grant rights to “Authors” for their “Writings.” Despite the centrality of these terms to copyright jurisprudence, neither the courts nor scholars have provided coherent theories about what makes a person an author or what makes a thing a writing. This article articulates and defends a theory of copyrightable authorship. It argues that authorship involves the intentional creation of mental effects in an audience. A writing, then, is any fixed medium capable of producing mental effects. According to this theory, copyright attaches to the original, fixed, and minimally creative form or manner in which an author creates mental effects.

After setting out the theory, this article applies it to a series of current copyright disputes. My authorship theory both expands and contracts the scope of potentially copyrightable works. Some media that have previously been excluded from copyright law, such as gardens, cuisine, and tactile works, now fall within the constitutional grant of rights. By contrast, aspects of copyrightable works, including photographs, taxonomies, and computer programs, may not constitute copyrightable authorship. This theory resolves a number of current and recent copyright cases, and it offers a new approach to the emerging challenges associated with artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, and, ultimately, the impending revision of the Copyright Act.

Buccafusco, Christopher, A Theory of Copyright Authorship (September 23, 2015). Virginia Law Review, 2016, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2664891

5Pointz Suit Continues

5Pointz before it was whitewashed
5Pointz before it was whitewashed

The legal battle over 5Pointz has entered a new phase this week, as a complaint by some of the artists whose works were destroyed when the building was whitewashed has been filed in Federal Court. Though this may seem to be a new suit or new proceeding, it really should be viewed as a continuation of the dispute that has been ongoing since 2013 and earlier. Only instead of asking a court to prevent the destruction of the works at issue, now the artists are seeking compensation for the actual destruction of the works when they were whitewashed. Nicholas O’Donnell has kindly posted this new complaint on his blog, and he argues that one interesting thing to watch in the dispute, is the measure of damages: Continue reading “5Pointz Suit Continues”

Good Luck to the Cultural Heritage Law Teams in Chicago

Alexander Calder's 'Flamingo'
Alexander Calder’s ‘Flamingo’

Good luck to all the teams fighting over the Blue Pineapple in Chicago at the National Cultural Heritage Law Moot Court competition this weekend! This competition is put together by DePaul College of Law with the help of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. It’s a great showcase for these soon-to-be-lawyers and this field. A bit about this year’s problem:

The 2015 Competition will focus on constitutional challenges to the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), 17 U.S.C. § 106A, which protects visual artists’ moral rights of attribution and integrity. The problem will address both a First Amendment and a Fifth Amendment challenge to VARA.

Cultural heritage law deals with our most prized possessions and often spans beyond national borders, and, inevitably, has become the subject of often contentious legal debates and policies. This dynamic and growing legal field deals with the issues that arise as our society comes to appreciate the important symbolic, historical and emotional role that cultural heritage plays in our lives. It encompasses several disparate areas: protection of archaeological sites; preservation of historic structures and the built environment; preservation of and respect for both tangible and intangible indigenous cultural heritage; the international market in art works and antiquities; and recovery of stolen art works.

And Chicago must be the place to be for art and cultural heritage law this weekend, as the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium will also be hosting a two-day conference titled: ‘Archaeological Looting: Realities and Possibilities for New Policy Approaches’.