Legal Threat From Creator Of Wall St. Bull Statue Even More Full Of Bull Than Expected
from the you-have-to-be-kidding dept
Yesterday, we wrote about reports that Arturo Di Modica, the artist behind the famous “Charging Bull” statue near Wall St., was claiming that the new “Fearless Girl” statue that was put up in front of the bull infringed on his copyrights. As we noted in our piece, the only possible claim we could see was a weak moral rights claim, under VARA — the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. However, as we noted in an update to the post (with a helping hand from law professor James Grimmelmann) VARA shouldn’t apply. If you read the actual law, it applies to works created after VARA went into effect or to works created before the law went into effect if the title to the artwork has not been transferred from the artist.
But, of course, the history here is that Di Modica dumped the statue in front of the NY Stock Exchange as a surprise in 1989, only to have it moved by the city and given a “temporary permit” in a nearby park that is continually renewed. 1989 is, obviously, prior to the enactment of VARA in 1990. And, Grimmelmann argues, Di Modica “transferred the title by accession when he installed it.”
Of course, Di Modica’s lawyers don’t appear to care. Late Wednesday, the letter that they sent Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York, was released, and their legal theories… are… well… let’s just say some might compare them to what comes out of the back of a bull. Yes, it does include a VARA claim, but it’s not the main claim of the letter. However, since that was the focus of our post yesterday, let’s deal with that one first:
Additionally, the placement of the statue of the young girl in opposition to the Charging Bull has undermined the integrity and modified the Charging Bull. The Charging Bull no longer carries a positive, optimistic message. Rather, it has been transformed into a negative force and a threat. For example, Mayor de Blasio characterized the Fearless Girl as a symbol of “standing up to fear, standing up to power, being able to find in yourself the strength to do what’s right.” The inescapable implication is that the Charging Bull is the source of that fear and power and a force against doing what’s right. Plainly, the presence of the statue of the young girl has tarnished and modified the Charging Bull: “intended as a symbol of strength by the artist, the bull takes on a menacing air in relation to the girl.”
This alteration of the Charging Bull and damage to its integrity are prejudicial to Mr. Di Modica’s honor and reputation and violate his rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, codified as §106-A of the Copyright Law. The Visual Artists Rights Act confers upon authors of works of visual arts, in addition to attribution rights, the right “to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation….” … Here, there is no doubt that State Street Global Advisors intended to distort, mutilate and modify Charging Bull, and did so intentionally distort, mutilate and modify Charging Bull by installing Fearless Girl in opposition to Charging Bull and engaging on its marketing campaign featuring this image. This violation of Mr. Di Modica’s rights will continue as long as Fearless Girl remains in opposition to Charging Bull.
Oh, what a load of bull. First off, this ignores, as Grimmelmann pointed out, that VARA almost certainly does not apply to Charging Bull (though if this went to court, I imagine Di Modica’s lawyers would argue, weakly, that he did not give up the title to the statue when he abandoned it on the road). Second, placing something next to your artwork, even as a comment on it, does not “distort, mutilate or modify” the work. And if the public’s interpretation of the Bull has gone from positive to negative, well, sorry Di Modica — that’s life. People’s opinions change. The idea that a visual artist could block someone else from placing a work near their own work because it might change how people see the original would create major headaches around the globe. Imagine museum curators being forced to move works of art because an artist protests about how the work next to his or her own negatively impacts how people view it. That’s insane.
Furthermore, if he’s really worried about his “honor and reputation”, how do you think the public — who has overwhelmingly supported the message of the Fearless Girl statue (even if it is just an advertisement for a State Street fund) — is going to feel about him being the thin-skinned, whiny, petulant artist who demands NY remove it? It seems likely that his actions here will do a hell of a lot more to damage his “honor and reputation” than the Fearless Girl statue does.
Anyway, the main claim in the letter, again, is not actually about VARA. Instead, it’s even more crazy. Di Modica’s lawyers argue (apparently with a straight face) that the Fearless Girl is a derivative work of the Charging Bull, and thus copyright infringement.
The statue of the young girl becomes the “Fearless Girl” only because of the Charging Bull: the work is incomplete without Mr. Di Modica’s Charging Bull, and as such it constitutes a derivative work of the Charging Bull.
The essential importance of placing the young girl statue across from the Charging Bull, as opposed to elsewhere, is highlighted on the website of SSGA, which invites browsers to “[w]atch how the Fearless Girl was created and placed in a spot that made her impossible to ignore.” It is only because of the Charging Bull that the young girl statue can be considered “impossible to ignore.” Clearly, a deliberate choice was made to exploit and to appropriate the Charging Bull through the placement of Fearless Girl. The inextricable link between the young girl and the Charging Bull has not gone unnoticed. As one commentator writes, “The tiny girl stands bravely face to face with the giant bull, and this spatial relationship of size, orientation, and stance adds depth to the meaning of the symbol.”
Furthermore, SSGA and McCann New York made conscious decisions to visually link the young girl statue to the Charging Bull. First, the statue of the young girl, just like the Charging Bull, is made out of bronze. Indeed, the patina of the young girl is nearly identical to that of the Charging Bull. Second, they extended the cobblestone paving of Bowling Green into the adjacent plaza. In so doing, State Street Global Advisors created another unifying element between the Charging Bull and the young girl that serves to transform the young girl into the “Fearless Girl.”
SSGA and McCann New York constructed a marketing campaign around the image of the Fearless Girl–the image of a young girl facing down the Charging Bull. They deliberately placed the young girl statue in direct opposition to the Charging Bull and used key design elements to associate the young girl statue with the Charging Bull. In effect, the Charging Bull has been appropriated and forced to become a necessary element of a new, derivative work: “Fearless Girl: Girl Confronts Charging Bull.” This is a direct violation of Mr. Di Modica’s copyright.
The Fearless Girl was created for commercial purposes: to advertise SSGA and its SHE fund. Because Fearless Girl incorporates and depends upon Charging Bull, SSGA and McCann New York have commercialized and exploited the Charging Bull. A promotional video released by SSGA, which has since been modified, reveals that from its inception, Fearless Girl was conceived and designed in relation to the Charging Bull: The opening scene of the video shows the artist sketching the young girl, with a picture of the Charging Bull beside her. The final scene of that video, is shot from behind the young girl but facing the Charging Bull. The viewer sees only the head and shoulders of the young girl. In contrast the Charging Bull is revealed in its full glory. That image makes incontrovertible the fact that SSGA and McCann New York created the young girl statue to commercially exploit the iconic status and reputation of the Charging Bull. Similarly, the use and distribution of a photograph of both the young girl and the Charging Bull by SSGA and McCann New York is evidence of the commercial use of not only the statue of the young girl, but also of the Charging Bull. This commercialization of the Charging Bull is also a direct violation of Mr. Di Modica’s copyright.
So much bullshit, so little time. Creating an entirely different artwork to act as commentary on the original is not derivative — and even if you could argue that it was, it would almost certainly be fair use as transformative. In fact, the letter itself admits flat out that this is transformative. It’s a self-defeating threat letter. You can’t argue that (a) this transforms the work entirely (as the letter does) and then (b) also argue that it’s direct infringement. But this letter does exactly that. That seems like really bad lawyering. And, really, what of the original copyright is being copied here? The only two things mentioned are the bronze patina (which is not copyrightable) and the Cobblestone paving of Bowling Green which is not part of Di Modica’s work in the first place, since he didn’t even place the Bull statue there (that’s where the city later moved it).
Finally, the letter also argues that Fearless Girl is trademark infringement, because it was a part of a State Street advertising effort. This part includes a bit of a conspiracy theory about the placement of Fearless Girl:
The placement of Fearless Girl opposite Charging Bull also dilutes the Charging Bull’s famous trademark. This is a violation of the Federal Trademark Law as codified at 15 U.S.C. §1125(c).
As discussed above, State Street Global Advisors installed the statue of the young girl in the plaza adjacent to Bowling Green and extended the cobble stone paving into the plaza. Had the statue simply been installed in Bowling Green, the statue would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Recreation. However, because the statue is technically in the plaza, it is now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation. These machinations appear to be an attempt to create a token separation of the young girl statue from the Charging Bull and thereby to circumvent the legal need for Mr. Di Modica’s permission to use his Charging Bull.
Or, you know, it was the best place to put the statue to make the point it was making. If you squint, maybe, there’s barely some kind of argument that because Fearless Girl “uses” Charging Bull as a sort of component of a kind of advertising campaign, there’s a trademark issue — but, boy, I wouldn’t want to be the lawyer who has to defend that argument in court.
Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio seems to be taking this all in stride:
Men who don?t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl. https://t.co/D2OZl4ituJ
— Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 12, 2017
We wouldn't move the Charging Bull statue if it offended someone. The Fearless Girl is staying put. https://t.co/Qu7CSbrmQw
— Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 12, 2017
And now we get to see if this actually goes to court.