Pending lawsuits by Mercedes-Benz against four artists who painted murals on a Detroit landmark could have ramifications for copyright law, as a federal judge this week allowed the suits to go forward.
When their colorful murals on buildings in Detroit's Eastern Market appeared without their permission in the background of now-deleted Mercedes Instagram posts from January 2018 promoting the G-Class luxury SUV, the artists — Daniel Bombardier, Maxx Gramajo, James “Dabls” Lewis and Jeff Soto — objected to Mercedes, saying they should be compensated for the use of their works. The new G-Wagen had just debuted days before at the Detroit Auto Show.
Lewis, a well-known Detroit artist who runs the African Bead Museum, told the Detroit Free Press that his mural “honors the African woman in slavery and the African woman going through colonization.” He added, “The piece is full of symbolism. You can define it as a sacred piece.” He claimed that Mercedes “defamed” the mural by using it out of focus and threatened to sue if he wasn’t compensated.
A spokeswoman for the automaker, Donna Bolland, told the Freep it had immediately deleted the Instagram posts as a courtesy when the artists complained.
But the artists hired a lawyer and "continued to make threats" in a series of letters, Judge Avern Cohn wrote in his ruling, prompting Mercedes' lawsuits. The automaker seeks a judgment that it was entitled to use the images without compensation and without consulting the artists.
“These threats were not about protecting artists’ rights or ensuring just compensation,” Mercedes' Bolland said. “They were about disrupting Mercedes-Benz’s business and obtaining a cash windfall.”
The company said the artists were attempting an “aggressive shakedown.”
The judge on Wednesday rejected a request by the artists to dismiss Mercedes' lawsuits against them. Cohn instead allowed the suits to go forward, and though he said the murals are "entitled to protection." he also wrote that the question is whether Mercedes "had the right to photograph publicly visible buildings which contained defendants' murals."
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I stand with @jeffsotoart and @maxxer242 because I believe they have the right to be fairly compensated if their work is used in a corporate ad campaign. I stand against the bullying tactics that a powerful corporation like Mercedes Benz is using to intimidate Jeff and Max. Visit the link in bio for more info from The @detroitnews. Thanks for caring. - Shepard #artistsrights
The attorney for the defendants, Jeff Gluck, told Hypebeast that the artists are “desperate.”
“Facing a lawsuit from a company as big as Mercedes would scare off many people," Gluck said. "But James and the other artists are not backing down. They are fighting for their rights, and for the rights of the global artist community. If courts were to adopt Mercedes’ argument, all outdoor works of art could lose protection.” A law called the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act permits the public to take pictures of art that is a part of an architectural structure.
The artists have drawn support from other artists including Shepard Fairey, who was on the other side of a similar fight. In 2011, he settled a long-running legal dispute with the Associated Press over his commercial use of an AP copyright photograph of President Obama in his well-known "Hope" poster. Fairey claimed fair use of the image. He was later fined $25,000 in federal court and sentenced to probation for tampering with evidence that he had used the particular photo in dispute.
It’s not the first time an automaker has created a stir by using public murals in Detroit. Last year a Swiss artist sued General Motors for using a mural he created in a parking garage in the city in a 2016 social media campaign for the Cadillac XT5. GM and the artist settled that case.