A number of Brooklyn-based street artists are pursuing legal action against McDonald’s for copyright infringement and false endorsement after the fast-food giant released an advertisement that features their works. The four-minute video, titled “McDonald’s Presents the Vibe of Bushwick NY,” was created to promote a new burger, the “New York Bagel Supreme,” in the Netherlands, and it features Bushwick Collective founder Joe Ficalora giving a tour of legally created street art around the neighborhood. Many of the artists who produced those works, however, never gave either Ficalora or McDonald’s permission to include them in the ad campaign, which also involved the corporation flying six members of the collective to the Netherlands to paint a series of promotional billboards there.
Those fighting McDonald’s, meanwhile, received nothing (not even a sample of the bagel-burger!). Artists Don Rimx, Beau Stanton, Eelco Virus, NDA, Atomik, and Himbad Sultan are now working with the firm Kushnirsky Gerber PLLC to seek compensation not only for profits earned from McDonald’s unauthorized use of their creations but also for damages to their reputation. According to a statement from Kushnirsky Gerber PLLC, the artists view the campaign as “antithetical to their own values,” also noting that the ad “portrays Bushwick as a gritty, impoverished neighborhood and briefly touches upon its recent gentrification, but does not acknowledge the role that global corporations like McDonald’s play in creating these sorts of economic and social conditions.”
The law firm is sending a demand letter to the corporation to notify it of the artists’ rights and to begin discussing potential ways to resolve the situation. It is also encouraging other artists whose work is pictured in the video to reach out to them.
“The best-case scenario would be for companies like McDonald’s to ask permission in the first place,” Andrew Gerber, an attorney with Kushnirsky Gerber PLLC, told Hyperallergic. “It’s up to the artists whether they want to allow corporations to use their artwork to promote their goods and services or not. Artists have the right to turn companies down. So in a situation like this, where it’s already happened and has been done without their permission, the best thing we can hope for is that the company stops whatever the infringement happens to be, stop using the artwork, and also compensates the artists for the use in the form of licensing fees — what would have been charged had it actually contacted them in the first place.”
In the advertisement (which McDonald’s removed from YouTube but has been preserved by Vandalog), Ficalora strolls around Bushwick highlighting its history and some of the collective’s artists, such as GHOST and GIZ. “We have murals all over Bushwick,” he says at one point. “It’s just a family of everybody.” As the camera jumps from scene to scene, however, it also captures works by artists unaffiliated with the Bushwick Collective. As Vandalog reported, some artists who have painted with the collective, including NDA and Louis Masai, were also unaware that their works had appeared in the ad until recently.
These works may reside in public spaces, but that doesn’t mean they are in the public domain. Street artists, unfortunately, are often exploited by wealthy corporations, and they tend not to find out until it’s too late. Part of the responsibility to ensure that those involved in this McDonald’s campaign — even if for only a split second in a video — get paid for their role does fall on Ficalora, who signed on to the campaign and presumably knows the politics and business of the street-art scene better than McDonald’s does. The Bushwick Collective founder did not respond to Hyperallergic’s multiple attempts to contact him.
A lawsuit has yet to be filed, but the copyright controversy arrives just months after McDonald’s was mired in another legal battle involving street art. In October, the estate of Dash Snow sued the chain for ripping off the late artist’s tag, “SACE.” The tag had appeared in a number of McDonald’s restaurants around the US and the UK, transforming the bland eateries into graffiti-filled spaces — no doubt so patrons could enjoy their buns and fries in an “edgy” environment.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.