Artist Sues Church For Moving His 9/11 Memorial Sculpture

from the this-again? dept

It's pretty rare for us to bring up the issue of "moral rights" over creative works in the US, and even rarer to directly reference VARA -- the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 -- and yet, here we are, twice in one week discussing VARA claims. Even more incredibly, both are about sculptures that were placed for free in parts of lower Manhattan, right off Wall St. The claim that's received lots of attention was the one over the Wall St. Bull and the fact that another statue was placed near the bull, which the artist claims changes his message, and thereby violates VARA. This other claim is from another sculptor, Steve Tobin, who is suing Trinity Church for moving his 9/11 memorial sculpture to Connecticut.

VARA, if you don't remember, was a bill passed in 1990, as a half-assed way to try to pretend that the US is in compliance with the Berne Convention -- the large (and almost entirely awful) international agreement on copyright and copyright related issues. Part of the Berne Convention requires that countries signing on recognize so-called "moral rights." For the most part, copyrights are considered economic, rather than moral rights, which is why they can be bought and sold. Moral rights, on the other hand, are a concept more popular in Europe, which argue beyond the economic rights, the creators of works have certain "moral" rights in what is done with those works. In order to pretend that the US fulfilled the Berne Convention requirements without actually introducing a full moral rights regime, Congress passed VARA in 1990, which gave fairly limited moral rights only to "visual" works like paintings and sculptures. The specific moral rights granted include the right to claim authorship in the work you created, and to prevent the destruction or mutilation of your work -- which is what we discussed in the case of the Wall St. Bull (even though VARA likely doesn't apply to the Bull).

So, now for the details of this case. The Art Newspaper (the link above), which first wrote about this story, did not post a link to the filing (side note: I never understand why journalists don't link to source material if they have access to it). You can read the whole thing here. But the quick summary, as explained in the link above, is this:

The sculpture The Trinity Root recalled a sycamore tree that stood in front of the 320-year-old church and bore the brunt of the debris from the collapse of the Twin Towers on 11 September, preserving the church from more extensive damage. Tobin convinced the rector of the church at the time to allow him to excavate the stump and roots of the tree so that he could create a bronze memorial. The artist was not paid by the church and covered the production costs himself—estimated at more than $1m according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court on Wednesday, 12 April—on the promise that the work would remain in the courtyard permanently.

The sculpture was installed in 2005, but a different rector decided it should be removed in 2015, without informing the artist, and relocated to a church-owned seminary in northwestern Connecticut. “The new rector, Dr William Lupfer, didn’t like it, thought it was ugly and took up too much real estate and wanted it gone,” said Kathleen Rogers, Tobin’s business manager. In the process of moving the three-tonne sculpture, some elements were damaged, the lawsuit says.

You can see a snapshot of the Trinity Root by Tony Fisher here (licensed under a CC-BY 2.0 license):

The Trinity Root - 9/11 Memorial

Large sections of the filing focus on the fact that in multiple press announcements and stories about the Trinity Root, the church mentioned that the sculpture would be a "permanent" installation (and in at least one case, Tobin himself put out a press release with the same claim, and the press release had the church's approval).

The lawsuit goes to great lengths to also note that this is Tobin's most famous work, that it's tied up with his reputation and that lots and lots of people come to visit it. Oh, and also he explains just how much effort was taken in creating, transporting and installing the sculpture (they even had to get the George Washington Bridge to close to allow him to transport the sculpture across it. In other words, this was no small undertaking. There's also a video of the creation, transportation and installation of the Trinity Root:

The complaint also reveals some of the discussions that Tobin had with Trinity Church after finding out that the new Rector didn't like the sculpture (or the crowds that came to see it). Tobin keeps telling the Church that the artwork is "site specific," and the church keeps asking him if he'd help them move it away at the church's expense. Also this: according to the lawsuit, as Tobin kept arguing with the church over moving the sculpture, they apparently went and did it anyway without telling him, and they continue to discuss over the phone with him his objections to moving it, without mentioning that they had already moved it.

One more twist in the contract between Tobin and the church is that Tobin agreed to one of those "you give us everything" clauses reading:

Under the heading "OWNERSHIP; COPYRIGHT" the Agreement further provided that "Tobin hereby transfers and assigns to Trinity by charitable donation all right, title and interest to the Sculpture and all materials related thereto (including but not limited to all sketches, photographs and audio-visual footage), including but not limited to the copyright therein, and any cause of action that Tobin may have with respect thereto, in perpetuity throughout the universe, for use in any manner and in any media now known and hereafter invented."

The question is whether this would count as a waiver of moral rights under VARA. You can't assign your moral rights to another party, but you can waive them. But a waiver, under VARA, has to be written and it has to specify the "uses of that work to which the waiver applies." Tobin's lawyers have a point that the above doesn't seem to be a waiver (and, Trinity Church might want to talk to whatever lawyer drew up that agreement...).

Finally, it's revealed that in moving the sculpture from Manhattan to Connecticut, the statue was damaged in a few places, which gives Tobin more of a claim under VARA for "mutilation" of his work.

So what does this all mean... At a glance, it seems like Tobin has a much more credible claim under VARA than the guy who created the bull, but it still seems... nutty. The idea that the church can never move a statue in its courtyard just seems wrong. And, at the very least, this case is another example of why we should let the Copyright Office know that expanding moral rights is a really bad idea. Remember, the Copyright Office is currently studying the question of expanding moral rights, and the comment reply period is still open (until May 15th).

In the end, while the damaging of the statue perhaps adds at least some greater credibility to the VARA claim -- even though it wasn't designed to be a mutilation, just an accident while moving -- the fact that an artist can claim (even after giving up all rights and title to the piece) that because the piece has some connection to a site, the owners can no longer move it, would be really, really dangerous. Yes, there's a stronger argument here as to why this one location is directly tied to this piece of artwork (and many other artists would have trouble showing the same level of connection), any time you argue that artwork is so connected to its siting that moving it would violate the law... something seems to have gone wrong. I can certainly understand why the artist is upset, but as we noted with the bull, artists give up quite a lot of control when they let art out into the world and, as in this case, hand ownership over to a third party.

Filed Under: 9/11, copyright, moral rights, steve tobin, trinity root, vara
Companies: trinity church


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 11:54am

    Where does these "artists" get 1 and 2.7 million to blow?

    Besides to sue. That's the real story here.

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