Artist Sues Sony Music Because Her Artwork Appears In The Background Of A Music Video

from the oh-please dept

Okay, this is just getting ridiculous. Artist Maya Hayuk is suing RCA and Sony Music because a mural she painted — and which appears to be in a public area — appears (rather briefly) in the background of a music video by Elle Varner. You can see the video below:

The colorful mural really isn’t in the video that long and is hardly a central part of the video. It’s just part of the background (and doesn’t even show up until pretty far in). But Hayuk claims that using it in such a video without a license is infringement. We’ve seen plenty of other attempts to claim copyright on public artwork and it strikes us as equally ridiculous each time. If you’re putting your artwork in public, it should be non-infringing if someone else happens to capture it in a photograph or video.

There’s a separate factoid in the case, which is that Hayuk apparently created the original mural for a different music video, starring Rye Rye and M.I.A., which you can see below:

So part of this might just be about “competing” videos both using the same mural (briefly in both cases). Though, honestly, the two videos are extremely different, and unless you’re really spending much time paying attention to the walls in the background, you probably wouldn’t even notice that this is the same wall. Of course, it’s always entertaining when a major label gets sued for copyright infringement, but this case really just highlights how ridiculous copyright law has become these days that merely dancing in front of a wall can be considered copyright infringement. It’s entirely possible that this will be found to be infringement, but any system that leads to such a conclusion has serious problems. The mural is public, and having people film a music video there is something that happens. Don’t want it? Paint over the mural or put it on private property.

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Companies: rca, sony music

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Comments on “Artist Sues Sony Music Because Her Artwork Appears In The Background Of A Music Video”

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Machin Shin (profile) says:

When I see things like this I find myself just hoping it is someone suing just to make a point of how stupid the system is. I know if I had the money I would spend all my time finding little things like this to sue the trolls with. If for no other reason than to waste their lawyers time defending pointless lawsuits.

You know, give them a taste of what they love giving everyone else.

Gumnos (profile) says:

But wait...

it’s just the visual analog to audio-sampling which is clearly legal! Oh, wait. Nope, never mind. The music folks have pressed hard to demonstrate that sampling is not legal.

But it’s just in the background, not the primary focus of the video! Oh, nope. Forgot about arguments in Lenz v. Universal.

Um, give me a bit more time and I can tell you why this is different from the others…oh wait, because it’s the recording industry being sued, instead of doing the suing!

kenichi tanaka says:

I’m siding with the artist on this one. Movies, TV shows, music videos, commercials … they all have to get approval from the companies and owners whose logos appear in their film projects.

This is no different.

Sony is constantly abusing their own copyrights and trademarks but when someone else calls them on doing the same thing, everybody else blames this artist for wanting to protect her work. She deserves to get paid for her work because Sony didn’t do the research to see if that “artwork” was copyrighted.

Just because it’s in public view doesn’t mean that Sony can film that artwork and make money from it. This is what has happened in this case.

kenichi tanaka says:

This needs to wake up the entertainment industry so that they realize that tougher copyright laws are going to do nothing more than create problems for the entertainment industry.

I doubt that they realized that tougher copyright laws could also create potential bigger problems for the entertainment industry, as well.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Killercool (profile) says:


No. They do not. I don’t know how this (common) misconception happened, but in no way does anyone have to ask for permission to use a branded item in a film.

The reason brands are avoided in movies and TV shows is so that it is not mistaken for product placement. Such a mistake would possibly offend viewers, and would certainly upset any company that actually did pay for product placement.

John Doe says:

Seems reasonable to me

If a video of a baby dancing to a Prince song in the background can be taken down, why should a music video with a painting in the background be taken down?

Now of course I am against both of the above takedowns, but the more this stuff happens, the more hope I have that something will be done about overreaching copyright. Little hope that it is.

Anonymous Coward says:


I agree. I would also say that, if the video happened to have this art piece in the distant background, or perhaps entered the frame just as they were strolling down the street, there might not be as much to stand on.

Seeing that the chose to film directly in front of the mural, it sort of negates any chance that they can claim it wasn’t intentional.

Further, I have to wonder: Does an artist who makes their work available in public somehow lose their rights to it? It’s not clear that the mural is on a publicly owned building.

PlagueSD says:


I’d have to agree. If I post a home video of my vacation and it just HAPPENS to have some music playing in the background, how long do you think it’ll stay up before Sony/BMG/Mafiaa take it down.

This is no different than that. As posted later in this thread, this is why you see all the blurred logos on all the reality TV (crap shows imho). They don’t want to pay the license fee to display the logos.

On a side note, If I want to watch reality TV, I’ll just look out my window. I can enjoy the view, and I don’t have to deal with all the blurred logos!!

Gracey says:

[but this case really just highlights how ridiculous copyright law has become these days that merely dancing in front of a wall can be considered copyright infringement]

Personally, I think it’s the perfect way to show guys like Sony just how ridiculous THEIR abuse of copyright laws has become by “turning the screw”. The shoe is on the other foot here…the irony is wonderful.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Agro-Patent Likeness

This draws parallels in my mind to the suits Monsanto brings against farmers who are not actively trying to grow seeds protected by their intellectual property rights. The seeds are just everywhere and in fact contaminate organic un-GMO production with their unwanted presence.

Some farmers just lost a preemptive suit against Monsanto, trying to have this type of accidental “infringement” declared invalid.

In a world where everything around us is Copyrighted, Patented and “owned”, it will be increasingly impossible to function without incidental infringement.

vruz (profile) says:

Are we sure the Mural is public property?

I agree 100% about the wild, rampant ridiculousness of copyright law.

However, if the wall on which this was painted is actually private property, it’s an edge case.
See for example the legal grounds on which Zucotti Park protesters were evicted by the parks management.

In the current state of legal affairs I wouldn’t be surprised if a maximalist concept of private property is applied too.

(For the record, I am philosophically a minimalist on these issues)

kenichi tanaka says:

I think you guys are under the wrong impression here.

While copyright law has become a very real problem, I don’t blame the artist for suing Sony over the unauthorized use of her work. It’s similar to making a movie when a resident of the city you’re filming in walks by with a boombox with a song playing. Even though the studio making the movie didn’t apply for the license for that music, they still have to get permission from the music studio for that music.

With the entertainment industry constantly pushing Congress for tougher copyright laws, this was bound to happen. Unfortunately, Sony got caught up in the same copyright laws they have been pushing Congress to pass.

Welcome to the world of the DMCA, SOPA, ACTA, PIPA …

Mr. Smarta** says:

What everything else?

The manufacturers of all the cars in the video need to get paid. And what about all the buildings? People built those buildings with their own sweat and hands. How much money do they get? And the trees? Somebody planted those trees, and they should get a cut. In fact, I was one of those people who helped pave that damn road she’s walking on, so I want my freakin’ cut! City didn’t pay me, I was a contractor. I didn’t sign anything that said my asphalt would EVER be filmed in ANYTHING. So somebody better be paying me really damn soon. And the sidewalks. I helped with those, too. I’m pulling in all of my fellow employees who paved that street and sidewalk, and we’re going to town on the music industry. By their calculations of interest and number of people downloading/watching that video, damages are already around $20 million and both kidneys. They BETTER pay up.

kenichi tanaka says:

Sony simply messed up by not scrubbing out the painting. You find this happening in every film when a studio doesn’t want to provide “free advertising” to companies who appear as store front signs, billboards, etc in the forum of product placement.

Those companies actually have to pay for their product to be featured in a movie or television series. Sony simply messed up by not doing their research. They didn’t think anyone would notice and assumed it was “public”. However, by featuring the artwork in a music video, from which they are seeking to make money from through music sales, they simply messed up.

This isn’t some company who isn’t making money from the artwork but rather a company in the entertainment industry who actually is making money from the production of that video.

Sony is simply found itself in the position where they are being slapped down by the same harsh copyright laws that they pushed Congress to pass in the first place. They’re going to claim “fair use” but you won’t see Sony allowing others to use their music via “fair use”.

Zem (profile) says:

I am an architect, as such all of my real creative work ends up visible in the public domain. I always chuckle when this nonsense happens. People have been copying, reinventing and building on architectural designs for centuries with out paying royalties, liscening fees etc. It is one of the things that makes the best works or architcture possible.

As it stands now, if all of the copyright, artist rights and other nonsense realy does become law, I will be showered with underserved wealth. How would you feel if when you sold your home you had to give 15% to the original architect. There are moves to do something similar for painting and other art works. How would you feel is the realestate add, with a piture of your home, had to pay fees to not just to the photographer, but the architect, the landscape designer who did your yard, and the 17 year old, who lives next door, who made that funky letter box for you?

Stay in a motel, your bill not only includes the hotel fee, but a liscening fee to the architect and interior designer.

Music, painting, novels and movies are not the only creative works that are protected by copyright. Try applying the rules they are demanding to other works and see how utterly terrifying they are.

PaulT (profile) says:


“I don’t blame the artist for suing Sony over the unauthorized use of her work”

I’d agree with one of the main points above – is the mural on public property or private? If public, then sorry – the art was donated to a public space and such things don’t apply. If private, then I would presume that permission was obtained to film there by the owners of the property. I’d like to think that the people renting out the property for filming would also have the rights to whatever visible features of the property would show up on film. Maybe the law isn’t that sensible, though.

“It’s similar to making a movie when a resident of the city you’re filming in walks by with a boombox with a song playing.”

This – especially if the music in question is only a few seconds long or in a documentary situation – is rather silly and a great example of why the laws are already out of control, even without the new laws being pushed for.

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Response to: kenichi tanaka on Feb 28th, 2012 @ 10:49am

Just off the cuff, I’d agree with you. But these are the companies that, as a commenter above pointed out, will pull your Youtube video of your daughter lip-synching and dancing to “their” music in a New York second. If they don’t believe in fair use, why should this artist?

Live by the sword, die by the sword!

Anonymous Coward says:


>This – especially if the music in question is only a few seconds long or in a documentary situation – is rather silly and a great example of why the laws are already out of control, even without the new laws being pushed for.

It’s already happened – as this brilliant comic shows. (I’ve no idea if Techdirt’s already brought this up before.)


Loki says:

The question is...

In theory they would want to lose, of course. The short term financial losses compared with the long term legal precedent would likely be too tempting to pass up. One would wonder if they would even invest much in a defense.

On the other hand, given the arrogance of a company like Sony, they might not appreciate that someone would dare to use their own rules against them.

Endtimer (profile) says:

The question is...

It’s also lose/lose for Sony if they go to court. Either they win and set a precedent that hampers their ability to sue everyone under the sun for copyright infringement, or they lose and suddenly a flood gate opens up. Technically if this sets a precedent then even billboard advertisers could claim their ‘creations’ were used in the video without their concent.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s interesting. In the video the rooms were decorated by a paid artist.
The female singing spends just as much time in front of the mural as in the two room scenes. They blocked/story boarded the mural when they scouted locations. Consider they were getting a third location backdrop for free. The muralist may have some grounds to stand on. jmo

Richard says:

> It’s already happened – as this brilliant comic shows. (I’ve no idea if Techdirt’s already brought this up before.)

When a video is for news reporting and/or documentary film-making purposes, it would seem that there is a strong argument for fair use to allow the incidental capture of copyrighted and/or trademarked works. (Among other things, the preservation of reality is of importance.) When a video is for entertainment purposes, the situation may be less clear. (It may be interesting to consider how documentary films often have an educational function, in comparison to “biopic” films having an entertainment function. It is likely that “reality” TV has something of an entertainment function, despite the term “reality.”)

On the issue of trademarked products being shown in movies and TV shows, there was a 2003 case where it was found that Disney was allowed to depict Caterpillar bulldozers in the movie “George of the Jungle 2,” even though the bulldozers were being used by the movie’s villains. In that case, it may have been for the better that Disney came out in the right.

Joe Escalante (profile) says:

It's a loser.

This case is lame but it’s unclear how it would come out in court. There’s no law requiring permission for logos, products etc. in filmed entertainment. As long as a product, even Coca Cola, is used in the manner in which it was intended, no permission is required. And any building visible from a public street may be filmed without permission, one exception being the photographing of a building that is also a company’s trademark like the Mutual Of Omaha building.

However, they might be able to prevail on a state claim of unfair business practices since they defendants are making so much use of the art. It’s not just a passing thing in the background. They are really exploiting it. Having said all this, all these lawyers should be ashamed of themselves for being involved in this lameness.

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