Art owners don’t have the moral right to do whatever they want to an artist’s work.
BACK IN AUGUST, many local residents were surprised, some might say appalled, to learn that a secret message, “ACAB”, had been inserted into a street mural commissioned by the City of Victoria as a gesture of reconciliation and inclusiveness. The mural painted at Bastion Square by a group of 17 artists was a depiction of the slogan “More Peace, More Justice” but inserted into the “S” on “Justice” was the acronym ACAB. This may not be a household term to many, but we soon learned it represented an anti-police protest term “All Cops are Bad,” or more pejoratively “All Cops are Bastards.” ACAB is reported to have originated in the UK in the 1920s. It became popular in punk rock circles in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently has become quite widespread during anti-racism protests in the US.
Not surprisingly, Victoria City Council and Chief Constable Del Manak were not impressed. Manak called the code word disrespectful and offensive. Council voted to paint it over. But then the artists staged a sit-in and it was decided to negotiate. The negotiations resulted in the entire letter “S” being painted over with black paint, and the following words inserted in its place. “This letter has been censored by the City of Victoria influenced by the Victoria Police Department. In doing so, Victoria is contributing to the silencing of Black and Indigenous voices and experiences across this land.”
The “More Peace, More Justice” mural in Victoria’s Bastion Square
This was a compromise of sorts, but certainly not one to calm troubled waters. The mural got plenty of attention—most of it unfavourable. A number of irate citizens weighed in, including one who decided to spray-paint over the revised wording. Some pointed out that since the City had commissioned the work, it had the right to amend it without negotiating with the artists. One local artist wrote to the Times-Colonist who printed the letter under the title “Who owns an art installation?” The writer said, “I have sold a number of pieces of both my own and commissioned work. I could not imagine incorporating a political message of my belief into a piece of commissioned work, without the knowledge of the purchaser. It would be unprofessional, as well as morally unethical.”
No arguments there. But then he continued, “I was angered to read that the artists responsible for the work were involved in “weeks of negotiations with the city” as to how to deal with the offensive acronym…I have been fortunate enough to purchase a few pieces of original art in my lifetime. Since I bought and paid for them, they belong to me. I can do whatever I wish with them…Since the city owns this installation, the city should not really have to consult with anyone as to what happens with the piece.”
Let’s examine that statement. As much as it may sound logical that if you own something, you can do whatever you want with it, in the case of art the situation is not so clear. First, Canada no longer follows the “work for hire” doctrine (applicable in the US), so just because a work is commissioned by someone, that does not mean that the purchaser owns the copyright. It is retained by the artist, and in this case the copyright is presumably held by the two artists who painted the letter “S”, or perhaps collectively by the entire group of 17 artists. And if they hold the copyright, they can exercise their “moral rights” to prevent unauthorized alteration of their work.
In Canada, the right to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification is known as the “right of integrity”. One copyright expert has described it this way: “The right of integrity is the right of the author to object to any changes of his work that may harm his reputation as an author. This harm would be a question of fact that would have to be determined in court through the testimony of witnesses. For example, painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa (if the Mona Lisa was still protected by copyright) would likely be a violation of Da Vinci’s moral rights.”
The best-known moral rights case in Canada involved the artist Michael Snow. Snow’s work Flight Stop, a representation of sixty geese, hangs in the main galleria of the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto. Commissioned by the Centre’s developers in 1979, in 1982 the geese became entangled in a legal controversy over Snow’s moral rights. Just before Christmas of that year, the management of the Centre decided to bedeck Snow’s geese with red ribbons and use photos of the bedecked geese on promotional items. Snow objected, claiming that the addition of the ribbons altered the character and purpose of the work and negatively affected his artistic reputation. Mall management disagreed, and the case went to the Ontario High Court, which ruled in Snow’s favour. The Eaton Centre was given three days to remove the ribbons, which they did. Snow had made his point and asserted his moral rights.
Now to return to the “More Peace, More Justice” street mural in Victoria, and its hidden ACAB message. It seems to me that the City of Victoria was wise to have entered into discussions with the artists rather than peremptorily disfiguring the work, no matter how noble it felt its cause was. Perhaps the Council actually took some legal advice on the matter? Maybe a group of 17 young artists would not have had the staying power to take the City to court, but who knows? A rich benefactor may have stepped up. It would have been very messy, although the “compromise” that was worked out was not so clean either.
Anyway, I hate to disappoint anyone who may think that an owner or collector can do whatever he or she wants with a piece of purchased art. It isn’t so. In the end, as unsatisfactory as the outcome may have been to a number of people, the City of Victoria undoubtedly did the right thing by negotiating and coming to a compromise solution agreed to by the artists.
Hugh Stephens, a Victoria resident and former executive with Time Warner, writes a weekly blog (www.hughstephensblog.net) on international copyright issues. This story originally appeared in his blog as “Victoria’s “More Peace, More Justice” Mural and the ACAB Controversy: Who Was “Morally Right”?