Mercedes sues artists over Eastern Market murals

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
In a now-deleted Instagram post from Mercedes-Benz, an Eastern Market mural by graffiti artist James Lewis can be seen in the background.

Detroit — Mercedes-Benz USA has filed lawsuits against four artists, seeking a federal judge's ruling that its use of their outdoor Detroit art in Instagram posts in 2018 did not infringe on their copyrights.

In January 2018, the company posted to Instagram photos of the Mercedes G 500. The photos were shot in Detroit, three of them in Eastern Market, which had been beautified in recent years with more than 100 murals as part of its Murals in the Market program. 

The lawsuits, filed Friday, claim that a year after the Instagram post, artists Daniel Bombardier, James "Dabls" Lewis, and Jeff Soto and Maxx Gramajo threatened copyright infringement lawsuits against the company. 

Jeff Gluck, attorney for the four artists, said Monday in a statement that “if courts were to adopt Mercedes’ argument, it could destroy artists’ rights for thousands of important and beautiful public works of art," because companies "would be free to use and exploit murals to sell their products, without needing to compensate the artists or even ask their permission."

Mercedes deleted the post from Instagram, the suit says, "as a courtesy."

"Nonetheless," the lawsuit against Lewis reads, "Defendant's attorney continued making threats against (Mercedes), claiming that (he) desires to 'expose'" the company, and would use the discovery process to unearth information other people could use to sue Mercedes, and "tell a jury that (Mercedes) made $80 million selling the G series truck, in an effort to wipe out (its) revenue from sales of the G series."

Mercedes, through its attorneys, argues it did not infringe the artists' copyrights and says it will fight what it calls an "aggressive shakedown effort."

The suits were filed at the federal courthouse in Detroit. 

Read: Lawsuit against James Lewis

Read: Lawsuit against Jeff Soto and Maxx Gramajo

Read: Lawsuit against Daniel Bombardier

Eastern Market was one of four sites where Mercedes got still photography and B-roll permits to shoot action shots of its vehicle; the others were Belle Isle, the Motown Museum and the Russell Industrial Center, according to the lawsuit. The photos were shot Jan. 15-16, 2018.

Gluck went on to say that "Mercedes' actions could intimidate artists into not wanting to make any artwork outdoors for fear that companies will use their work without permission, and we must not let that happen."

And officials with Murals in the Market say the copyright to the murals is owned "100%" by their creators.

"We stand firm that the copyright of the artwork always belongs to the artist, unless the artist decides otherwise," Roula David, executive festival director for the Murals in the Market program, said in a statement.

"We side with the artists and will help fight against corporations who don't act responsibly or respectfully." David added that Mercedes' lawsuit is "particularly offensive, as Mercedes has contacted us in the past to license other works for similar advertisements." 

Mercedes claims the focus of the photos was the vehicle itself, not the art behind it, and the suit says that any "reasonable observer" would see that the company "fundamentally transformed the visual aesthetic and meaning" of the art works behind it, even "partly blur(ring)" the art "to highlight the vehicle's speed and movement."

But for Bombardier, the use of his mural in "an advertisement for a Mercedes Benz car that costs $200,000, without any compensation to me, or without even asking my permission first, is totally unacceptable." He called on the "global artist community" to fight back against it. 

"I grew up next to Detroit, and it was always my home. I made this mural from my heart and spent weeks painting it and spent thousands of dollars of my own money making it. The mural is intended to be a story about gentrification and represents a lot about my life," he said in a statement. "And now they have filed a lawsuit against me trying to strip away all of my rights. I feel like I am being bullied and intimidated."