Mercedes-Benz suit against Eastern Market mural artists can go forward
It's a bit of a David versus Goliath story, but on Wednesday — for the moment, at least — Goliath won the initial round, though the contest is far from over.
Four artists seeking compensation from Mercedes-Benz USA for posting ads last year on Instagram featuring their Eastern Market murals didn't get the quick victory they'd hoped for but will be able to argue the merits of their claims as the case moves forward.
Judge Avern Cohn ruled in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Wednesday that a suit by the automaker seeking a judgment that its use of the murals violated no laws can proceed. Cohn rejected the artists' arguments that the suit should be quashed.
However, in his "memorandum and order," Cohn specifically said that the question of whether Mercedes' argument will carry the day "is not before the court at this time" — i.e., that issue will be argued and decided in the coming months.
The artists involved are Daniel Bombardier, James "Dabls" Lewis, Jeff Soto and Maxx Gramajo. Only Lewis, who owns the African Bead Museum, is a Detroiter. The murals went up as part of the Murals in the Market art project.
The ultimate decision will likely turn in part on the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act, which permits taking pictures of buildings from any public place without the need to compensate anyone.
Cohn wrote that the question is whether Mercedes "had the right to photograph publicly visible buildings which contained defendants' murals."
The AWCPA permits photographing any building element that's part of the architectural design — some legal judgments have included freestanding sculpture in this definition — but the question is whether the murals fall under that umbrella or not.
"The scary part is that if courts were to adopt Mercedes' argument, and any artwork on any building became unprotected, it could fundamentally erode artists' rights," wrote the artists' attorney, Jeff Gluck, in an email to The Detroit News from a plane Wednesday evening.
Mercedes-Benz could not be reached for comment.
The legal flap had its origins in a number of Instagram photos shot in Eastern Market of the Mercedes G500, which the car company posted to Instagram in January 2018.
After it got a complaint from the artists demanding compensation and alleging copyright violation, the company took the posts down "as a courtesy." Mercedes has denied any illegality, and has called the whole thing an "aggressive shakedown effort."
Officials with Murals in the Market have insisted that the murals' copyright is owned "one-hundred percent" by their creators.
"We stand firm that the copyright of the artwork always belongs to the artist, unless the artist decides otherwise," said Roula David, executive festival director for the murals program, in a statement last spring.