I am writing this post as cautionary tale to fellow artists. I hope that is serves as a lesson to be learned through me and not one to be experienced in their own work. Every now and again I'm reminded of my lesson when I'm riding down the road and I see a "for sale" sign. Or I'm watching TV and I see the commercial. I try to get over it but each time I see anything related to the mural I did for a very well known local Real Estate Agent, I feel like I've just been slapped in the face.
Here's my story...
Back in 2009 I painted a mural of a map of Maryland with roadways and significant towns and cities for the office of this Real Estate Agent. They wanted something to show clients where their house would be in relation to their work. In designing the mural, I drew out the shape of the state, complete with each county, significant towns, and placed a Maryland flag in the background. I wanted to add something that was unique to the Real Estate Agent's company and take up the "dead" space in the lower left area where West Virginia and Virgina usually are. I decided to add a compass rose, being it a map and all, I thought it appropriate. I researched different designs and composed a compass rose that would compliment my design. I placed the Real Estate Agent's initials in the center of the compass rose. I presented my design to the Real Estate Agent's wife and she like it. Just change out the blues (I had originally included blues because their website had the color.)
I installed it with the help of my amazing paper hanger. I got paid for my work and that was that.
A few months later, I am at a meeting and I see the compass rose on some give-away pint glasses. Hmm, I thought..not sure how to comprehend. I took a glass and put it in my bag. Then I started seeing my compass rose, the one I designed for the mural, all over the place...on ads, on signs, on brochures, on commercials, on everything! Needless to say I was dumbfounded. And angry!
I talked it over with my family and some fellow artists. I did research on copyright law. I decided to write a letter. It was responded to by his lawyer. "You can't copyright a compass rose." I then got my lawyer involved. I didn't want to go there but anyway. The image was clearly taken from my mural and wasn't in use before the mural's execution. The composition, colors (well, the initials were black instead of red) were IDENTICAL. In educating myself about copyright law and art, I learned that ANYTIME an artist touches pencil (or brush) to paper, that work instantly is covered by copyright. Here is a good explanation. But, come to find out, because I had not registered my mural with the copyright office and had a clause in my contract that all of my work is owned by me, I stood little chance in court to come out with any money left in my pocket. See, even though as an artist I owned the copyright to my work, I didn't bring it up within 3 months of discovering the theft. If I had, I would have been able to recoup all of my court costs if I were to have won. But because the amount of money it would take to take the Real Estate Agent to court far outweighed the piddly amount of money I had asked for in compensation, it wasn't in my favor. I still could, it would just bankrupt me. I'd be out more money than what I was trying to get.
So...lesson learned. I have put things in place so that I am protected and have learned what my rights are.
Next time you see that compass rose, smile and say "Gee, what nice work, Dee!"