A Castle, a Chapel, and a Theorem Make for a Copyright Infringement Case

Three urban artists, Jaz, Ever and Other filed a copyright infringement suit on August 12 in the Northern District Court of Illinois against movie director Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. The artists claim that Gilliam reproduced without permission their copyrighted work Castillo (Castle), a mural they collectively painted in 2010, in his movie The Zero Theorem, which will be released in the U.S. next month. They are also suing the producers and distributors of the movie.  

Castillo is a large-scale painted mural which is on permanent public display on a street in Buenos Aires “in a well-known zona de graffiti. The complaint explains that Buenos Aires is “particularly welcoming to graffiti and street artists” as the “local government has even subsidized some of the urban murals.” Indeed, Buenos Aires features many beautiful urban art works which attract tourists from all over the world.    

Castillo was created using latex and spray-paint “through an improvisational exercise” and is quite striking. It features several characters on a vivid blue background, each character painted by one of the three artists. The complaint notes that “Castillo is so important that it is one of the few public artworks that have survived for years in that particular zona de graffiti.” In other words, the quality of that particular piece is so great that fellow urban artists have chosen not to paint over it. The artists registered the copyright in Argentina last November, and gave it its Castillo title then.

The main character of The Zero Theorem movie, played by Christopher Waltz, lives in a dilapidated chapel in a dystopian London. The façade of the chapel is decorated with a fresco which is indeed quite similar to Castillo. The complaint states that “it copies each of the three main elements of [Castillo] created by the Plaintiffs, albeit in a slightly different arrangement and on a washed-out red background, rather than the brilliant blue chosen by the Plaintiffs.” However, many of the elements of Castillo are almost literarily referenced, such as the pattern of the sweater or the Greek-inspired hat of the character on Castillo’s left side, who has algae (or snakes? eels?) coming out of his eyeballs.
Castillo is on the left

The chapel’s exterior is often used as a backdrop through the Gilliam movie and the complaint also notes that it is used  by Defendants to promote the movie (you can see it at 0:19 in the trailer here). It is also shown on the movie’s promotional website and on the movie’s social media pages. The complaint provides an example where a picture of the chapel was posted on the movie’s Pinterest page.

This is not the first time that Terry Gilliam has been sued for copyright infringement. The Southern District of New York (SDNY) granted in 1996 artist Lebbeus Woods a preliminary injunction enjoining the distributor of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys movie from distributing, exhibiting, performing or copying portions of the movie which reproduced Woods’ copyrighted drawing of a chair which had been reproduced in three dimensions in the movie (Woods v.Universal City Studios). The case eventually settled out of court.

The Woods case is interesting as the defendants there had unsuccessfully claimed that the infringement was only de minimis because the infringing footage amounted to less than five minutes in a movie which was 130 minutes long. But the SDNY reasoned instead that “[w]hether an infringement is de minimis is determined by the amount taken without authorization from the infringed work, and not by the characteristics of the infringing work.” In the Castillo case, the amount taken is significant. 

Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction, impoundment of the movie and damages. As the movie is scheduled to be released in the U.S. in a few weeks, it is likely that the parties will soon find an agreement out of court.
A Castle, a Chapel, and a Theorem Make for a Copyright Infringement Case A Castle, a Chapel, and a Theorem Make for a Copyright Infringement Case Reviewed by Marie-Andree Weiss on Saturday, August 16, 2014 Rating: 5

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