A Street Artist Is Suing a Grocery Chain for Allegedly Using His Work in an Oprah-Narrated Super Bowl Ad Without His Consent

Chris Williams says the commercial has damaged his reputation.

Chris Williams's mural in Des Moines, Iowa. He is suing Hy-Vee for allegedly using it in a commercial without his permission. Image via courtlistener.com

Chris Williams, an artist based in Des Moines, Iowa, who goes by the pseudonym CAW, has filed a copyright infringement suit against national grocery store chain Hy-Vee after the company allegedly used images of a mural he created in an advertising campaign narrated by Oprah Winfrey without his permission.

Williams painted the outdoor mural on the broad side of a building in October 2018 and signed it as “CAW” on its lower right-hand corner. He painted the lower left corner with his Instagram contact information, @KingCAW, according to the complaint, which was filed August 1 in a US District Court in California, where the ad campaign was distributed, according to the complaint.

According to court papers, earlier this year, Hy-Vee “inexplicably featured the mural in a marketing campaign… without the artist’s knowledge or consent. The campaign included a commercial—with lingering shots of the mural—that premiered during the Super Bowl and continued to air on television for several months thereafter. The campaign was also posted widely across Hy-Vee’s social media, including on its YouTube channel.”

A representative for Hy-Vee did not respond to request for comment by publication time.

Screen shots from the ad campaign. Image via courtlistener.com

Screen shots from the ad campaign. Image via courtlistener.com

According to Williams’s lawsuit, Hy-Vee’s “exploitation of the mural is particularly damaging because Williams has carefully avoided any association with corporate or mass market consumerism. Despite offers, he has very rarely made his original art available as part of corporate advertising campaigns—partly for artistic reasons but also because doing so would diminish the value of his work.”

The complaint asserts that nothing is more antithetical to a street artist’s credibility than association with something as banal and commercial as a grocery store chain. Williams alleges misappropriation of the mural and says Hy-Vee also removed his signature from the advertising materials. He is seeking attorney fees and punitive damages for claims including “alteration and removal of copyright management information under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.”

“My client gave Hy-Vee an opportunity to do the right thing. Instead, they completely ignored him and brushed him aside,” Williams’s Los Angeles-based attorney, Jeff Gluck, told artnet News via email. “Chris decided to file this lawsuit to protect his rights and the rights of all artists who find their work being used without permission. The artist community will not stand for this type of behavior and we will fight back.”

Asked for comment, Williams told artnet News: “I think I need to clarify that it’s okay to take selfies in front of murals but it’s not okay for corporations to reproduce art for commercial purposes . I thought this was very apparent but some people are very confused by this. I don’t think people are seeing the big picture here. My art and creative energy gets diminished when it’s made into a corporate backdrop  this is not my goal as an artist and not something I want to participate in.”

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