Judge sides with immersive art company Meow Wolf in artist copyright infringement lawsuit

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A federal judge in New Mexico has dismissed an artist’s claims that art company Meow Wolf infringed her copyright. Lauren Olivierwho created and installed a monumental sculpture known as the space owl at the popular House of Eternal Return (HoER) immersive attraction in Santa Fe, New Mexico, filed its original lawsuit in March 2020, accusing Meow Wolf of breach of contract and violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), among other claims, in using the space owl picture in supplementary material. She sued the company for more than $1 million, arguing that she had not received fair compensation for her work, which is the centerpiece of her climate change-themed environment. Quellette Ice Station (ISQ).

New Mexico District Court Judge Kirtan Khalsa said in an order filed Sept. 12 that Meow Wolf “has an irrevocable implied license to display the work” on the Santa Fe site. The implied licenses permit certain uses of ‘a work copyrighted by the licensee, a party that has generally paid for the creation of the work, or a physical form of the licensor’s intellectual property (IP). “The plaintiff’s objective intent was to grant an implied license to display the ISQ to the entity or entities operating the HoER for the first ten years,” Khalsa writes, referring to Meow Wolf’s ten-year lease on the Santa Fe building.

Oliver first created her character Space Owl, a furry, wide-eyed, horned creature, in 2006. In 2015, she made a new version of it for HoER, Meow Wolf’s first permanent installation, which occupies 20 000 square feet of a former bowling alley. with immersive Instagram-ready art. At the time, Meow Wolf had not incorporated and existed as an artist collective. Representatives offered Oliver a $1,000 stipend, covered some material costs, and noted in an initial email that she would retain all intellectual property rights, although Meow Wolf would own the final work. They also offered him a $10,000 “revenue-sharing stipend”, which founder Sean Di Ianni later described as “essentially a verbal commitment to artists to give a portion of our revenue to artists after we reach a certain income threshold,” according to court documents. . This number was later revised to $7,000.

According to Khalsa’s order, Oliver says she never received a contract, but Meow Wolf co-founder and senior creative director Caity Kennedy recalls considering a contract together. Oliver then redirected her allowance to an artist who had helped her install space owl and ultimately only received a portion of her revenue share, as Meow Wolf had told Oliver she had to perform an IP assignment to receive the check. The company had also begun calling its revenue-sharing program the “Artist Bonus Program,” which Oliver said in his 2020 lawsuit, amounted to Meow Wolf co-founder Vince Kadlubek “making personal and arbitrary decisions about who got what.”

“Although a significant portion of the value of ‘Meow Wolf’ is due to ISQ and Space Owl, to date the plaintiff has only received $2,000 from ‘Meow Wolf’ for her work,” indicates the ordinance of Khalsa. HoER generated $6.8 million in revenue in its first year; in 2018, it welcomed its millionth visitor and generated $90,000 on the most profitable day.

That year, Oliver accused Meow Wolf of violating her rights when she noticed footage of the space owl, which had become one of HoER’s star attractions, in books sold at the venue’s gift shop, and in a documentary. Kadlubek then gave him the opportunity to sell all the rights to space owl or remove the entire ISQ installation without additional compensation. This, according to Oliver, would have required the destruction of the space owl. In March 2021, his attorney sent the defense a letter demanding that Meow Wolf stop posting the ISQ.

But her past conduct, the court ultimately decided, suggested she was “far from objecting” to that demonstration. The order notes that Oliver produced “ISQ-themed items for sale on consignment in the HoER’s gift shop” and “actively sought to profit” from the facility, receiving over $20,000. of these sales between 2016 and 2019.

“As such, Plaintiff’s conduct after creation and delivery confirms its intention to license the operators of the HoER for the first ten years of operation of the exhibit,” the order reads. “Even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, [this case] involves multiple businesses running a single business that continually used the plaintiff’s unique work as she intended to use it. »

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