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A now-deleted Instagram post advertising the Mercedes-Benz G 500 (photo courtesy United States District Court – Eastern District)

Mercedes-Benz USA is suing four Detroit-based artists after the company used their murals in an Instagram advertising campaign for one of its vehicles. Mercedes filed the federal lawsuit after the artists threatened to sue for copyright infringement.

The photos, posted in January last year, featured the Mercedes G 500 luxury SUV posing against a backdrop of graffiti murals at Detroit’s Eastern Market. The murals belong to artists Daniel Bombardier, James “Dabls” Lewis, and Jeff Soto and Max Gramajo.

Mercedes seeks a judgment of fair use, claiming that its vehicle is the centerpiece of the posts, not the murals. The automaker argues in the suit that the photos show only a minimal amount of the murals and that a “reasonable observer” would plainly see that the company “fundamentally transformed the visual aesthetic and meaning” of the artworks.

This transformation, Mercedes claims, was achieved by a number of techniques, including “partly blurring” the mural to highlight the vehicle’s “speed and movement throughout the city streets,” and a side-angle “to draw the viewer’s focus immediately to the G 500, not the mural.” The company also argues that the goal of the images was to highlight the performance of the automobile, not the meaning of the artwork.

In another line of defense, the company claims the murals are “integral to the Detroit cityscape” and “serves a functional purpose.”

The company has nevertheless removed the posts “out of courtesy,” according to the suit.

“An advertisement for a Mercedes Benz car that costs $200,000, without any compensation to me, or without even asking my permission first, is totally unacceptable,” Bombardier told The Detroit News. The artist calls on the “global artist community” to join his fight against the automaker.

Attorney Jeff Gluck, who represents the four artists, said in a statement that “if courts were to adopt Mercedes’ argument, it could destroy artists’ rights for thousands of important and beautiful public works of art,” which would allow businesses to “use and exploit murals to sell their products, without needing to compensate the artists or even ask their permission.”

In the case against James Lewis, Mercedes accuses the artist’s attorney of repeatedly threatening to “expose the company” and reveal information that would help others to sue it.

Roula David, executive festival director for the Murals in the Market program in Detroit has expressed her solidarity with the artists. “We stand firm that the copyright of the artwork always belongs to the artist, unless the artist decides otherwise,” she said in a statement. David added that the automaker’s lawsuit is “particularly offensive,” as Mercedes has contacted her to license other works for similar advertisements.

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an...

6 replies on “Mercedes-Benz Is Suing Artists Who Accused the Car Company of Copyright Infringement”

  1. Would Mercedes Benz ask The City of Hollywood if they used the Hollywood sign as a backdrop? Would they ask Coca Cola, Pepsi, FedEx, Warner Brothers, McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, or Sonic? An artists work should be considered copy written as soon as they place their signature on it. It is work unique to that artist and nobody else should have any rights to do anything with it without the permission of the artist themself.

  2. They (Mercedes) should have asked for permission from the artists, and if granted, paid them for the use of their artwork in the ad.

  3. They are willing to pay lawyers to hassle these artists, but instead they cannot just use that cash to just pay the artists ??? This is ridiculous! And so typical of our current oligarchic climate.

  4. If the mural is painted on a street wall… isn’t it public domain? If it were my house that appear in the ad… should I ask for a compensation?

  5. Street artists are placing their works on exterior buildings for exclusively public and clearly unregulated viewing. As such, the artwork is integrated into the urban landscape for all to enjoy. When a street artist places their artwork on the side of a building, the artwork becomes a modification of the building.

    Fortunately, in the US, it is legal to photograph or videotape anything and anyone on any public property, within reasonable community standards.

    The current situation is not eroding artists’ rights.The artists have the responsibility to understand their legal protections and the limitations thereof when deciding where to place their artwork. I don’t think that anyone should be expected or required to ask for permission to photograph or videotape our exterior city spaces.

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