How Does VARA Protect Artists and Building Owners?

Patrick Lewis contributed to this post.

5Pointz is the story of how the pen is mightier than the brush. Or, how written notice could have saved a building owner more than $6 million dollars in damages.

5Pointz History

Starting in the 1990s the exterior walls of the New York building complex known as 5Pointz, representing the five boroughs of New York, was a magnet for highly-recognized graffiti artists and a tourist attraction. The site was so popular, the owner, Jerry Wolkoff, created a “curator” role to oversee what graffiti would go on the buildings.

In 2013, 5Pointz owner Wolkoff announced his plans to destroy the 5Pointz complex and build high-raise apartments in its place.

Seeking injunctive relief on the grounds 5Pointz is a famous tourist spot, twenty-one 5Pointz artists filed suit in federal district court hoping to save their creative expressions.  Before the court issued an opinion, Wolkoff white-washed the walls of 5Pointz, destroying all the graffiti. The court awarded the artists $6.75 million in damages for violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA).

What is VARA?

The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 grants moral rights to certain forms of art. Moral rights are non-economic, spiritual or personal, and exist independently from an artist's copyright. Moral rights stem from an 18th-century French concept le droit moral.  VARA grants two moral rights, integrity and attribution. Integrity grants an artist the right to prevent the intentional distortion, mutilation or modification of their work. Attribution grants an artist the right to receive credit for their work.

What Works Does VARA Protect?

VARA only protects a “work of visual art” which the statute defines as paintings, drawings, prints, or sculptures. The statute explicitly excludes posters, maps, globes, charts, technical drawing, diagrams, models, applied arts, motion pictures, and merchandising/promotional items. The statute also expressly excludes works made for hire.

This litigation [5Pointz] marks the first occasion that a court has had to determine whether the work of an exterior aerosol artist—given its general ephemeral nature—is worthy of any protection under the law.
— Cohen v. G & M Realty L.P., 988 F. Supp. 2d 212, 214 (E.D.N.Y. 2013)

Additionally, VARA only protects “recognized stature.” The statute doesn’t define works of “recognized stature.” Carter v. Helmsley-Spear, Inc., 94 Civ. 2922 (DNE), 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7779 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) remains the seminal case for interpreting the phrase "recognized stature.” Carter created a two-prong test to determine “recognized stature.” First, the visual art has “stature” (i.e. is viewed as meritorious). Second, the visual art is “recognized” by art experts. Carter requires the visual art to achieve some notoriety, but how much notoriety is required is still unclear.

How Does VARA Work?

VARA does not completely prevent the destruction, mutilation or otherwise modification of protected works. VARA requires 90 days’ notice to the creator before the destruction, mutilation or otherwise modification of their work. There must be a good faith effort made to notify the creator. Sending notice to a creator’s last known address is sufficient. Notice is required so the creator has time to remove their work, if possible. 17 U.S.C. § 113. In the case of 5Pointz, it’s unclear to me how the graffiti could have been removed in such a way as to preserve the graffiti without actually removing chunks of the exterior façade.

An award of damages for a violation under VARA can be no less than $750 and no more than $30,000 for each work destroyed. If there is a willful violation, damages can be up to $150,000 for each work destroyed.

The Lesson From 5Pointz

5Pointz puts VARA into focus. It serves as a reminder that violating VARA has real consequences. Wolkoff could have potentially avoided a lawsuit by giving the artists notice of his plans to destroy their works. One question I have is whether or not Wolkoff could have located an address to properly notify all or most of the artists.

If you’re a creator of a VARA protected work, know your rights. Be aware that notice is required for the destruction, mutilation or modification of your work. On the other hand, if you own property that incorporates VARA protected work, know your obligations and follow the notice procedures.

Listen to entertainment lawyers Tamera Bennett and Gordon Firemark discuss the 5Pointz case on the Entertainment Law Update Podcast Episode 94.

Read the court opinion here. Cohen v. G&M REALTY LP, Dist. Court, ED New York 2018.

Update - Recent VARA Case Filings:

As of April 25, 2018, new lawsuits have been filed in Memphis and Pittsburgh over the destruction of graffiti/murals in public spaces.