A series of Instagram posts advertising Mercedes-Benz’s Mercedes G 500 SUV may be more than a year old now, but the automobile company is currently engaged in a legal battle over the photos. In January 2018, Mercedes Benz published a set of photos showing the car driving through Detroit’s Eastern Market, in which several local artists’ graffiti murals were prominently featured. The murals were painted as part of the Murals in the Market program, which was an effort to beautify Detroit. The company did not obtain the artists’ permission before taking and posting the pictures.
A year after the photos were published, the four artists of the murals, Daniel Bombardier, James “Dabls” Lewis, Jeff Soto, and Maxx Gramajo, began accusing Mercedes of copyright infringement for featuring its murals without compensating them and threatened to sue them. Mercedes took down the photos, but the artists continued to demand payment for featuring their murals.
In response, Mercedes filed separate lawsuits on March 29th against the artists to receive a declaratory judgment from a judge striking the copyright infringement allegations. Mercedes made several arguments defending its inclusions of the murals. Primarily, it argued that its inclusion of the murals was fair use. It claimed that the focus of the photos was the vehicle itself rather than the artwork behind it, and, consequently, any “reasonable observer” could see that the company “fundamentally transformed the visual aesthetic and meaning” of the work behind it. For example, the photo is partially blurred “to highlight the vehicle’s speed and movement.” The company also argues that the murals are exempt from copyright protection under the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act. The Act states that permanent parts of the architecture on buildings will not be protected except for those created after December 1990 and before January 2003.
This is not the first case of its kind. In 2018, Swiss graffiti artist Adrian Faulker, known as Smash 137, sued General Motors after the company published an advertisement that features his outdoor mural in the Z parking garage in downtown Detroit. The case will likely be heading to trial after a California federal judge ruled that his lawsuit could move forward in September. Similar to the current case with Mercedes, the main question of the case against General Motors will be whether outdoor art is an “inexorable part” of a building’s architecture or an “integrated concept” that deserves protection.
The four artists’ attorney, Jeff Gluck, claimed in a statement that if courts agreed with Mercedes’ argument, businesses would be able to “use and exploit murals to sell their products, without needing to compensate the artists or even ask their permission.” Detroit officials who spearheaded the Murals in the Market program have publicly voicedtheir support for the artists, stating that Mercedes had previously licensed similar works for similar ads. Well-known artists Shepard Fairey and Tristan Eaton have also publicly supported the defendants on social media. The outcome of this case will either be a big win for artists who create murals for buildings, or one that will benefit another large corporation.
Image Source: https://www.p exels.com/photo/mercedes-benz-silver-emblem-163774/