Street Artist Sues Real Estate Developer for Using Mural in Ads

The mural in question.

DUMBO is one of the neighborhoods that has been affected most by the Brooklyn housing boom, with Manhattan’s bohemian elite leaving in droves for the once-scruffy area under Manhattan Bridge, and the culture clash is having some interesting consequences. The New York Post reports that local graffiti artist and tagger Craig Anthony Miller (aka CAM) is suing the Toll Brothers, a major real estate developer, for using images of his artwork to help sell nearby luxury condos.

Miller claims the developer violated his copyright on a since-destroyed “Elephant Mural” painted in 2009 and removed in 2013. The Toll Brothers, he claims, used a “very recognizable” portion of the massive, 90-foot work in advertisements for nearby apartments, which were displayed on subways, telephone boots, bus stop shelters, and in a newspaper.

Miller’s suit notes that the mural is his most famous work. He obtained permission from the property owner before painting it, and holds a copyright registration for it, which will likely help boost his claim. “These commercial uses…were never authorized by the plaintiff,” the court papers charge.

According to the New York Post, Miller even met with Toll Brothers executives in 2012, when he first learned of the advertisements, to discuss compensation and even opportunities for future collaboration. But ultimately, nothing came of the talks.

The artist is seeking unspecified monetary damages, but with the Toll Brothers’ luxury condos in DUMBO selling for between $400,000 and $1.1 million, if they’re found guilty, it could mean a major payday.

The case has shades of 5Pointz, the graffiti mecca that was first established around 2002 by developer Gerald Wolkoff in an effort to beautify a Long Island City building complex, and thereby raise its value, but was torn down recently, despite an attempt by artists to save their artwork, to make way for condos (see Destruction of Graffiti Mecca 5Pointz Is Underway). This month, the developer added insult to injury, in the eyes of the artists, when it attempted to trademark the term 5Pointz and use it on future properties (see Petition Launched Against Developers’ Attempt to Trademark 5Pointz).

This also isn’t the first time street art and big business have tangled over copyright infringement. American Eagle (see Street Artist Sues American Eagle For Copyright Infringement), Coach (see Mural Artist Sues Sara Bareilles and Coach for Copyright Infringement, and director Terry Gilliam (see Street Artists Sue Terry Gilliam for “Blatant” Copyright Infringement) have all recently been embroiled in lawsuits over the unauthorized use of artworks. The moral of the story? Just because it’s displayed outside, doesn’t mean it’s free.

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