"Charging Bull" artist says "Fearless Girl" violated his rights

"Charging Bull" is ready to rumble with "Fearless Girl."

The sculptor who created the iconic "Charging Bull" statue in New York City's financial district says the city and an investment company violated his rights by installing the newly popular “Fearless Girl” statue near his creation without permission for what amounts to a commercial ad campaign.

Speaking at a Manhattan news conference Wednesday, Arturo Di Modica, 76, said he installed the bull in front of the New York Stock Exchange in 1987 as a symbol of America’s resilience following the stock market crash that year. The city later relocated the sculpture to a small public park nearby.

"The bull represents strength," said Di Modica. "The strength of America, the strength of the market."

In the years since, "Charging Bull" has become one of the city's most popular attractions, drawing tourists from all over the world.

"Fearless Girl," with hands confidently placed on hips, was installed in front of the bull on the eve of last month's annual commemorations of International Women's Day. Boston-based State Street Global Advisors has said it commissioned the new artwork as part of its call on behalf of the more than 3,500 companies that benefit from its clients' investments to ensure that corporate governing boards feature diversity.

Created by artist Kristen Visbal, the new sculpture virtually overnight became a new symbol of a lack of gender diversity and equality on Wall Street and in other U.S. workplaces.

Now, along with flocking to Di Modica's creation, tourists also vie to take selfies with "Fearless Girl," and other photos that showcase the young beauty staring down the beast. A petition from change.org also attracted thousands of signatures that asked for "Fearless Girl" to remain permanently.

By March 27, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed that the “fearless girl” statue would remain on Department of Transportation property as a part of a municipal art program through February 2018.

Many hailed the announcement. But not Di Modica. He argued that "Fearless Girl" was part of an advertising campaign that altered the artistic message behind "Charging Bull" without his permission. Additionally, his attorneys said the new sculpture infringed on a trademark and copyright held by Di Modica.

"What they did, it's a negative," Di Modica said of the new message conveyed by "Fearless Girl." Now, the message is "I'm here, what are you going to do," he said.

Attorneys for Di Modica said a plaque initially placed with "Fearless Girl" demonstrated the commercial nature of the new installation. The plaque stated: "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference." The "she" in the message referred to the financial trading symbol for a State Street Global Advisors exchange-traded fund.

By positioning one sculpture near the other, everything changes, to Di Modica's detriment, said attorney Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"The statue of the young girl becomes the "Fearless Girl" only because of the Charging Bull: the work is incomplete without Mr. Di Modica's Charging Bull, and as such it constitutes a derivative work," Siegel and other attorneys wrote in a Tuesday letter to Ronald O'Hanley, the president and CEO of  the investment firm.

Similar letters went to de Blasio and McCann Worldwide, the company the lawyers said developed an ad campaign for "Fearless Girl." Di Modica's lawyers also filed Freedom of Information Act requests with city agencies, seeking records related to the authorization, location, placement and installation of "Fearless Girl."

State Street Global Advisors spokeswoman Anne McNally said the company was reviewing the letter from Di Modica's attorneys. The company thanked New York City residents and "people around the world who have responded so enthusiastically to what the Fearless Girl represents — the power and potential of having more women in leadership."

"Our goal with Fearless Girl was to create a powerful symbol to stand as a reminder to corporations across the globe that having more women in leadership positions contributes to overall performance and strengthens our economy," the company said.

Representatives of the mayor's office and ad company did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment. However, a Wednesday morning tweet from de Blasio's official Twitter account said: "Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl." Hours later, de Blasio tweeted: "We wouldn't move the Charging Bull statue if it offended someone. The Fearless Girl is staying put."

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Siegel said Di Modica seeks an "amicable" solution in which "Fearless Girl" is moved elsewhere and "Charging Bull's" creator is recompensed for infringement damages. However, the attorney acknowledged the controversy eventually could end up in court.

Siegel took pains to avoid criticizing "Fearless Girl" as a new symbol of women's rights. "None of us here today are not in any way opponents of gender rights," he said.

Di Modica has long been zealous in protecting the rights to his taurine creation.

In 2009, he sued publisher Random House and the authors of a book about the collapse of Lehman Brothers, alleging that an image of the bull on the book’s cover infringed on his copyright of the artwork. The case was settled in 2010, federal court records show.

Di Modica filed a similar copyright infringement case in 2006 against Walmart, the parent company of North Fork Bank and others. That case, which accused the companies of improperly using the bull image in television programs, photographs, commercials and other venues without permission, also ended with settlements, federal court records show.

If all sides fail to reach an acceptable settlement of the sculptor's latest claims, Siegel said Di Modica's legal arguments would hinge in part on the Visual Artists Rights Act. Enacted in 1990, the federal law grants creators the right "to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation."

Sonya Bonneau, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said a court would have to decide whether displaying "Fearless Girl" a short distance away from "Charging Bull" represents a distortion or change of Di Modica's creation.

"It is a lot more obvious if the other artist did something physically to the bull, but this is just placing or adding something else near the sculpture," said Bonneau. "Instead of a physical modification, it's treating distortion more in a contextual way, and that could be a problem."

Di Modica's copyright on his sculpture would last for his lifetime, plus 70 years, said David Shipley, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.  Similarly, the artist's trademark on the "Charging Bull" would remain in effect as long as Di Modica keeps it registered and in use, said Oliver Chernin, one of the sculptor's lawyers.

Nonetheless, "it's a stretch to say that his copyright extends to the radius around where the artwork was placed," said Shipley.

Di Modica's rights ultimately could rest on New York City's approval of the permanent installation during former mayor Ed Koch's administration. Shipley said he was unsure what rights Di Modica "has retained to public presentation, or if there is anything spelled out in an agreement with the city."

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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