Street artists sue celebrity Church "Vous" for copyright infringement

In Miami, eight street artists who donated their talent to paint striking murals at Jose de Diego, a struggling middle school in Wynwood, have filed suit against a church for copyright infringement.

The murals at the school were created by artists from around the world during Art Basel 2014, and are strikingly beautiful. There's an upside down rose against a backdrop painted to look like marble, a dancer in a colourful dress, a wall full of blue droopy eyes. A portrait of a young black girl, a portrait of a redhead, an entire wall full of bright colour explosions. The beautiful artwork attracted a lot of attention, and soon the celebrity hip Vous Church - which the church says is short for rendezvous, meaning "get together", rather than the word "you" - rented the school auditorium for Sunday services, and launched a campaign to draw followers. Great news for the school, right? Well, sort of.

The problem was that the entire print campaign, instagram and social media images, flyers and mail that Vous Church used contained photographs of the artwork, with Vous logo superimposed on top - yet Vous Church never asked for permission to use the artwork in their advertising campaign. Now eight street artists who donated their work to the school are engaged in a legal battle with Vous Church. Vous Church is a young "fresh & hip" a celebrity church, both in the sense that the pastor Rich Wilkerson, Jr. has some fame, and also in the sense that he married Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Pastor Wilkerson’s career is going quite well, he's released a book where West designed the cover, and he's starring in a reality show "Rich in Faith" with his wife DawnCheré. As the lawsuits notes, the couple "live in a penthouse duplex luxury apartment in Miami, complete with outdoor terraces and rooftop pool". With that sort of momentum, it seems quite the sad oversight to not have secured permission to use the artworks for Vous Church campaign.

“This is my career,” said Miami artist Typoe, whose work was appropriated for the ads to the Miami Herald. “It’s like if you were to walk into a CVS and steal a whole aisle of Cheerios. There would need to be accountability.”

Robert de los Rios, a Wynwood and arts promoter who helped organize the project at Jose de Diego public school called the legal tussle “heartbreaking” when he spoke to Miami Herald:

“It feels like s*** that this happened in the first place and it feels worse that no one reached out to the artists. At the very least, someone needs to reach out and say, ‘Hey, we love the image. How can we use it?’ ...The issue here was the complete and utter disrespect.”

It's not just the images in the ads, inside of the school the church has painted over inspirational murals depicting Muhammad Ali and Albert Einstein, without asking for permission. Church representatives have been calling the artists and asked them to back down from their legal claims. “I’m legitimately worried that this will ruin what we’re trying to do here,” de los Rios said to the Miami Herald.

“Artists have the right to choose the companies and brands with whom they work,” said Andrew Gerber, the New York attorney representing the artists. “It is critical for artists to maintain control over these things."

"A common misconception with a lot of people, not just with this lawsuit, but in general, is that publicly posting artwork places that artwork in the public domain," Gerber explained to Artnet "This is a misconception that I think needs to be corrected. If some creative work is publicly displayed, the public display of that work does not at all affect the intellectual property right of the creator of that work. Period."

In the days of the "it's just a copy you still have the original so that's not theft" generation, it's difficult to make people understand that an artists still has right sto their work, regardless of where they have put it. The legal battle over copyright is now between eight artists who want to be compensated for their work, represented by Andrew Gerber a New York attorney who has previously represented one of the artists, Ahol Sniffs Glue, in a similar suit against a American Eagle Outfitters. That suit ended in a settlement, and as things usually go, so probably will this one.

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