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Des Moines Artist Sues for Copyright Infringement

Des Moines Art Festival Exec Stephen King sent me this story:

Des Moines artist Chris Williams never imagined his work would be in a Super Bowl ad, but he recently became aware that an ad by the supermarket chain Hy-Vee featured prominently his mural in a Des Moines neighborhood. Not only that, the narrator was Oprah. It was a 4 minute feature that showed his work twice. Right.

So you've got Oprah, the supermarket and original art. Who profited?

I believe you're right. Not Chris.

It’s clear that artists are sick of their creations being treated like neutral backdrops for a plethora of corporate initiatives, and they’re fighting back en masse.

Chris is suing Hy-Vee for $25,000. His story has spread way beyond Des Moines.

Learn more:

My husband was a photographer, he always carried "model releases" with him, to insure he had permission. Did Hy-Vee get permission? Is this copyright infringement? What do you think?

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Comment by Sonja Jones on August 28, 2019 at 11:04am

To Karen Cooper - all art, once created, is copyrighted.  You don't need to register it or file anything to have this protection.  Also, the reasoning presented by Hy-Vee's attorneys is flawed to me.  If I'm watching a television program, and a sit-com has one of my paintings hanging on the back wall of the set, would that be considered just "background"?  According to their logic, my painting really had nothing to do with the comedy, and it was "transformed" by being in their television program.  Sorry - not buying it.  And yes, Judy Christian, I would be happy that so many viewers would see my artwork, but as Larry pointed out, they would have no idea who painted it or how to contact me.  I'd rather be paid fairly for its use by the television production company!

Comment by Steve Sawusch on August 28, 2019 at 11:03am

Sounds like the work was not registered ($25k). Note to artists, register your work.

Comment by Connie Mettler on August 28, 2019 at 9:39am

In total agreement with you, Larry. This was obviously a big budget production, all the bells and whistles in place, as well as agents, lawyers, etc. I think the artist does have a leg to stand on AND as Judy says above -- an opportunity to capitalize on the situation.

Comment by Larry Berman on August 28, 2019 at 4:41am

How will anyone know who created the work of art? And an artist’s work is automatically copyrighted at the time of creation. But usually an attorney won’t take the case unless it’s been registered. In a case like this, the people who researched the location should have had the artist sign a release. They are paid to make sure the background is usable.

larry Berman 

Comment by Judy Christian on August 27, 2019 at 9:24am

Of course I have no specifics as to how the commercial originated, but I feel that the artist is approaching this all wrong. He's been handed a GIFT!!!!!!!!!

An image of your artwork with Oprah standing next to it- come on!!!

Surely a creative person can figure out a ton of ways to get a lifetime of credibility and publicity out of that!

Comment by karen cooper on August 26, 2019 at 5:55pm

WAS it copyrighted and if yes, then why? Most people that see it, whether in the ad or on the wall will not think of it as art, but rather just a painted wall.

"neutral backdrops" - I think that's a pretty good description for the wall.

Another Des Moines Register article added:

"However, fair use laws allow the use of copyrighted material as long as it is done for a “transformative” purpose, like commentary, criticism, news or parody.

In a letter to Williams’ attorney, Hy-Vee’s representatives claimed the use of the mural was transformed in the commercial and the usage of the mural was a small portion of the overall advertisement."

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