In 1989 a sculptor named Arturo DiModica stuck a 16 foot-long, 2 1/2 ton brass sculpture of a bull in front to the New York Stock Exchange. Without any kind of permission from anybody. He said the sculpture was in reaction to the stock market crash of 1987 and a symbol of “the strength and power of the American people.” He also mentioned that he had four more identical sculptures for sale.
Acting on a complaint from the NYSE, New York City police hauled the thing away to an impound lot, but the public outcry was so great that NYC Parks and Rec brought it back and installed it a couple blocks from where it was originally dumped. The city granted a temporary permit for it, and it’s been there ever since.
Since DiModica owns the copyright to the sculpture, he’s been able to sue various companies like Wal-Mart for selling miniatures and Random House for using an image of it on the cover of book about Lehman Brothers.
Notwithstanding DiModica’s stated “intent”, more recently the sculpture has become viewed as a symbol of the one-percent’s greed. The Occupy movement in particular staged political theater using the sculpture as its antagonist. When I visited the Wall Street Occupy encampment in 2011, nearby the bull, I was struck by the utter wrongness of it. To me, the bull stood for everything that was wrong with America.
So it was quite fitting when, a few months ago on the eve of International Women’s Day, a stinking-rich Wall Street hedge fund manager dropped a bronze sculpture of a small, defiant girl, with her feet apart and fists on her hips, in front of the bull. Never mind that the hedge fund was hyping some kind of women-centric investment fund—the little girl (who bears a passing resemblance to the Degas Little Dancer at The Clark) is perfect. All the world cheered.
Well, except for DiModica, who was not amused. Last week he had a team of lawyers send a threatening letter to New York City, claiming various types of copyright and trademark infringement. I’m not the first to call bullshit on DiModica and his lawyers.
The letter to the city is signed by four lawyers from two different law firms, only one of whom appears to have any significant intellectual property experience. Sadly, one of them is Norman Siegel, the former long-time head of the New York ACLU, who recently has distinguished himself by opposing all-women gyms and taxicab companies and who really should be ashamed of himself.
The letter is four pages of histrionic insanity. First, it claims that the placement of the girl in front of the bull creates an unauthorized derivative work that infringes DiModica’s copyright. Bullshit. It comments on DiModica’s work and that makes it fair use. I’ve seen some artists on social media apparently agreeing with the claim, that somehow curatorial choice and art placement can be actionable by an artist. No. Art is commonly placed in ways to provoke, to comment, and to allow pieces of art to converse. Copyright infringement? Please. You dropped your art on the street and now you’re complaining? Bite me.
Then there’s a claim that the girl has caused a violation of the Visual Arts Rights Act (VARA), a law that protects artists’ “moral rights” in a work by protecting the work’s integrity and the artist’s attribution to the work. Bullshit again! The law came into effect in 1990, and only affects works created prior to that if the title to the work, the ownership of the work, had not passed prior to 1990. By abandoning the work in the street in 1989, DiModica abandoned title to the work. Boink! And even if this isn’t the case, placing a little girl sculpture in front of the bull did absolutely nothing to affect the bull’s integrity, such as it is, or DiModica’s attribution as the bull’s creator.
Then there is the trademark claim. DiModica has one trademark for the image of the bull, and that’s for t-shirts. So bullshit again! Throughout the lawyers’ letter, there’s a thread that the hedge-fund firm only put the girl in front of the bull for crass commercial reasons, and it severely damaged the positive and inspirational message DiModica meant for the bull. Bullshit on steroids! First, an artist’s meaning for a work, while interesting, is ultimately less important that the public’s perception. And as noted above, the bull has become, in the eyes of many, a symbol of evil and greed. Second, DiModica appears far from being motivated solely by sweetness and light. Just last December he applied for the trademark CHARGING BULL NEW YORK for a whole bunch of things including preserves, salads, meats, fish products, olive oils, chocolates, pastas, pasta sauces, rice, honey, breakfast cereals and wine.
Looks like a little bronze girl just upset somebody’s business plan. Oops.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has responded to this nonsense with a single, priceless tweet: “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” Bravo.
Paul Rapp is a Berkshires-based IP attorney who didn’t get hung-up about Easter.
Correction: This column originally attributed “The Little Dancer” to Rodin.