Ai Weiwei Wins a Legal Battle With Volkswagen Over an Ad That Featured His Refugee-Themed Art Installation Without Permission

The artist will receive $260,000 from the company.

Ai Weiwei, Soleil Levant (2017). Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017
Ai Weiwei, Soleil Levant (2017). Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017. Life jackets in front of windows of facade. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by David Stjernholm.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has won his legal battle with Volkswagen over an advertisement that used one of his installations as a backdrop without his permission. Today, a court in Copenhagen awarded the artist a total of 1.75 million Danish krone ($260,000) in compensation for what it described as “an improper exploitation of the artwork for marketing purposes.”

Ai sued the car giant’s Danish distributor, Skandinavisk Motor, after he learned that Volkswagen Denmark had used an image of Soleil Levant—a work featuring thousands of discarded refugee life jackets—for a campaign to promote its VW Polo in October 2017. Ai says he negotiated unsuccessfully with the company for over a year to come to a resolution before filing suit.

He claimed that the company had infringed on his copyright and moral rights—and perhaps more gravely, damaged his reputation by making it look as if he had agreed to license his work to the company in an ad seen by more than 200,000 people. Ai had asked for 3 million Danish krone ($300,800) in compensation.

The court agreed with the artist’s lawyers that the marketing of the car contradicted the message of Soleil Levant, which was created for World Refugee Day and was presented on the facade of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen.

A spokesman for Skandinavisk Motor say that it is “very surprised” by the judgement, which it will study closely before deciding its next step. He says that as soon as the company discovered the error over copyright: “We tried to find a conciliatory solution with Ai Weiwei, which reflected Danish case law.”

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The artist was quick to post the news of his legal victory on Instagram, quoting directly from the legal documents. During the trial, he was also vocal on social media about his decision to take legal action.

“In out globalized era, corporations often operate with impunity, answering only to their shareholders,” he wrote on Instagram. He also accused VW’s CEO Herbert Diess of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in China, where the company is currently expanding production. “Volkswagen’s conduct towards my artwork is a small reflection of a global lack of respect for the rights of individuals today,” Ai wrote.

Ai salvaged the life jackets from the piles left behind by migrants who had made the dangerous crossing from Turkey to the Greek Island of Lesbos, a journey he has documented extensively since he regained his passport and left China in 2015.

The director of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Michael Thouber, who co-curated the installation, is delighted by the outcome. He says the court’s verdict sends a clear signal that you cannot use an artist’s work without paying for it or without permission. “Artists’ copyright has to be protected, whether it is in a gallery or in a public space,” he tells artnet News.

He adds that when Skandinavisk Motor’s lawyers tried to argue that the company did not realize that the Kunsthal’s building was an art institution, or that the installation on the front of the building was art, the artist laughed out loud in court.


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