Saudi Artist Ahmed Mater Sues Swiss Watchmaker Swatch For Plagiarism
Where does legal appropriation stop and theft of imagery begin?
Ahmed Mater’s Magnetism (2012) is emblematic of the vibrant new art scene emerging from the Gulf. The etching print, which exists in several versions, pictures a black cubic magnet neatly encircled by steel dust—a poetic evocation of the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, and of the pilgrims’ undulating movements around its most sacred building, the Ka’aba.
This didn’t stop watchmaker Omega, part of the Swiss Swatch group, to appropriate Magnetism in one of its latest ad campaigns, replacing the Ka’aba with a Seamaster Aqua Terra watch. The Quotidien de l’Art reports that the artist never agreed to this commercial use and is now suing the group for copyrights and moral rights infringement via a Paris law firm. He has requested €1,337,500 in damages, as well as an injunction to stop using the image in France.
In legal documents quoted by the QdA, Mater’s lawyer, Michel Dutilleul-Francoeur, explains that the artist couldn’t possibly have given the authorization to use his image without an official green light from the Saudi authorities, since blasphemy is a crime in the kingdom. Hinting at early negotiations, he mentions the fact that Mater might have considered a deal if Omega had acquired two editions of the work and donated them to a museum, but this didn’t come to pass.
“Omega SA has destroyed several years of work by letting the public believe that [Mater] is mocking religion when he lives in a country with a religious police and where blasphemy is a crime—it is thus putting the artist and his family at risk,” Dutilleul-Francoeur states. “They could be forced into exile should a fatwa be declared against him and those who broadcast these counterfeited images.”
Swatch’s Full Right to Use the Image
Contacted by Le Figaro, Swatch’s head of communications, Bastion Buss, said the he believed it was within the group’s rights to use the image “to extol the watch’s anti-magnetic properties.” “For the first time in the history of watchmaking, a watch resists magnetic fields superior to 15,000 gauss,” he said. “It’s a real technological prowess.”
“This is exactly what we are showing with the steel dust that cannot get near the watch, demonstrating its magnetic resistance,” he explained, adding that, “Antimagnetic properties have always been illustrated in this way in reference manuals.”
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