Kendrick Lamar Could Be Forced to Share Profits From His ‘Black Panther’ Hit Because of an Artist’s Copyright Lawsuit

A preliminary ruling goes in artist Lina Iris Viktor's favor.

Screenshot from Kendrick Lamar's
Screenshot from Kendrick Lamar's "All the Stars" video, featuing the black and gold patterns alleged to have been stolen from Lina Iris Viktor's work.

Hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar is battling a copyright lawsuit from artist Lina Iris Viktor, and things aren’t going his way.

Yesterday, New York federal judge Paul A. Engelmayer refused to grant the singer partial summary judgement in the case. The judge ruled that he couldn’t yet say that Viktor would not be entitled to a share in the profits from the sales of the Black Panther album and its hit single “All the Stars” should she be able to prove that he copied visuals from her paintings in the song’s music video.

According to Viktor, when the creators of the blockbuster film Black Panther approached her about using imagery from her “Constellations” series in the movie, she said no. She also rebuffed members of Marvel’s PR team when they came back with a similar request.

And yet, when the music video promoting the film came out, it featured black and gold designs and patterns that bore an undeniable resemblance to Viktor’s work, with its gold leaf on black paint, and use of African and ancient Egyptian imagery.

Lina Iris Viktor, Materia Prima II (2017–18). Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle. 

Lina Iris Viktor, Materia Prima II (2017–18). Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle.

Viktor is seeking damages in the form of a cut the profits, which she argues are her right under the Copyright Act. (She is “apparently ineligible for statutory damages on account of the lack of registration of her works as of the time of the alleged infringement,” wrote the judge in his ruling.)

In his request for summary judgement, Lamar had insisted that there was no possible evidence that the song and album’s profits were tied to any infringement of Viktor’s artwork. Lamar also argued the artist should be unable to be awarded damages due to any damage to her reputation as a result of the video.

Side-by-side comparisons of Lina Iris Viktor's "Constallations" paintings and Kendrick Lamar and SZA's "All the Stars" music video for Black Panther. Images courtesy of Viktor's legal complaint.

Side-by-side comparisons of Lina Iris Viktor’s “Constallations” paintings and Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” music video for Black Panther. Images via Viktor’s legal complaint.

Engelmayer found that it was too early to say whether or not Viktor would be able to prove in a non-speculative fashion that the use of her work had influenced sales of the single and album, because the discovery process is still ongoing in the case. The legal precedents cited by Lamar both involved cases decided after full discovery.

“These precedents commend a similar approach here, as opposed to granting summary judgment at the discovery threshold,” wrote the judge.

Side-by-side comparisons of Lina Iris Viktor's "Constallations" paintings and Kendrick Lamar and SZA's "All the Stars" music video for Black Panther. Images courtesy of Viktor's legal complaint.

Side-by-side comparisons of Lina Iris Viktor’s “Constallations” paintings and Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” music video for Black Panther. Images courtesy of Viktor’s legal complaint.

The film Black Panther has grossed $1.346 billion at the box office, world wide, since its release in February. Lamar’s “All the Stars” played over the film’s end credits. The song went two times platinum in the US, with 281,000 units sold, according to Billboard.

“We are pleased that the court has agreed that defendants’ attempt to rule out the possibility of any damages from the sales of the ‘All the Stars’ single and the Black Panther soundtrack is grossly premature at this early stage of the litigation,” said Viktor’s lawyer, Christopher J. Robinson, in an email to artnet News. “Now we will have the opportunity to examine the revenue to the music defendants from the exploitation of this infringing music video and seek the full measure of defendants’ profits that plaintiff is entitled to.”

This latest ruling in the case coincides with the display of the Black Panther costume, worn by Chadwick Boseman in the movie, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The outfit was unveiled today as part of the kick off of the inaugural Smithsonian African American Film Festival. It will be on view during the festival’s “Night at the Museum” celebration this evening.


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