Copyright in landmarks

The Hollywood Reporter’s legal blog is carrying a story about yet another lawsuit involving landmarks and/or statues. The Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro is suing Columbia Pictures for copyright infringement over the exclusive rights it holds on the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most iconic landmarks in the world (I use the term iconic without wishing to enter into an iconoclast and iconodule argument). The infringement occurred in the disaster movie 2012 (if you have not seen it, don’t). The famous statue is considered the height of art deco sculpture, and it towers over the Corcovado mountain like a statue that towers over a mountain (apologies, my simile function is not working too well this morning).

There is little doubt that the statue is still under copyright. The work was designed by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, and it was sculpted by French sculptor Paul Landowski, who finished it in 1931. There have been questions over the years as to who owns the copyright exactly, as back in 2004 Landowski’s heirs tried to claim royalties from the admission tickets to the landmark. Landowski was working under commission from the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro, so it would seem it is they who own the copyright.

According to AFP, the Archdiocese handles all copyright requests for the sculpture, and it usually grants permission for 99% of suggested uses. In the case of 2012, Columbia Pictures asked for permission to use the statue in the film, but the Archdiocese did not grant it because Christ the Redeemer would be toppled by a giant wave. Thou shall not topple the Christ. The interesting aspect is that both AFP and the Hollywood Reporter claim that Columbia Pictures lawyers are adamant that they did acquire permission to use the statue in the movie, but they obtained it from Landowski’s estate, and not from the Rio Archdiocese. My guess is that Columbia’s lawyers were aware of the copyright dispute, and they decided to put their lot behind Landowski’s heirs. There may be enough of a question about ownership to dissuade the Archdiocese from pursuing the lawsuit further. I smell a settlement coming up.

A younger incarnation of yours truly infringes archdiocesan copyright

Interesting as this case might be, I have been thinking about copyright in landmarks and outdoor statues. This is not the first time such a dispute has arisen. One of the most famous cases is the 1995 film Batman Forever, where a sculpture was prominently featured 8 times throughout the film. Incidental showing of a statue or landmark should not require a licence, but lengthy exposition, or a prominent presentation of the work, should necessitate permission from the copyright owner.

Not only sculptures are subject to copyright enforcement. The Eiffel Tower is in the public domain, so the City of Paris cannot attempt to enforce copyright over it. However, the City claims copyright over the light displays at night. The Eiffel Tower’s FAQ reads:

Q : Are we allowed to publish photos of the Eiffel Tower?
A : There are no restrictions on publishing a picture of the Tower by day. Photos taken at night when the lights are aglow are subjected to copyright laws, and fees for the right to publish must be paid to the SETE.”

This might be a way of ever-greening copyright over public domain works, but one could argue that it is a sensible way of maintaining some control over the uses of a work. Then again, one could argue that this is just a money-grabbing exercise. Is the City of Paris justified in their position? That depends on whether one considers the Eiffel Tower’s light display an art installation. If the answer is yes, then there seems to be little argument that night pictures of the Eiffel Tower do indeed carry copyright. By the way, anyone interested in copyright in art installations should read this excellent article by Molly Ann Torsen in SCRIPTed.

I am still rather amused by the current dispute regarding Christ the Redeemer, not so much because of the legal issues, but because 2012 is such a preposterous film that it does not deserve the added attention that this suit may bring.

Update: Interesting jurisdiction question for you. Take a look at this picture from The Economist. It is a British publication, could the Rio Archdiocese object? Not under UK law, but interesting nonetheless.

3 comments to Copyright in landmarks

  • 2012 is a truly truly awful picture. I hope Sony are sued into a smoking pile of celluloid for having made it.

  • Andrew

    Hi Andres

    This isn't a problem under English law – see section 62 CDPA 1988:

    62 Representation of certain artistic works on public display

    (1) This section applies to—

    (a) buildings, and

    (b) sculptures, models for buildings and works of artistic craftsmanship, if permanently situated in a public place or in premises open to the public.

    (2) The copyright in such a work is not infringed by—

    (a) making a graphic work representing it,

    (b) making a photograph or film of it, or

    (c) broadcasting or including in a cable programme service a visual image of it.

    (3) Nor is the copyright infringed by the issue to the public of copies, or the broadcasting or inclusion in a cable programme service, of anything whose making was, by virtue of this section, not an infringement of the copyright.

    • Don't you mean UK law? :P

      But yes, UK law is different in this respect (and much more logical IMO). It seems like Brazilian law has no equivalent provision, and neither does U.S copyright law.

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