Artists file trademark suit over NYC jail demolition

On Behalf of | May 20, 2022 | Trademark enforcement |

Visual artists Kit-Yin Snyder and Richard Haas created several works of art installed in the Manhattan Detention complex. Long known as The Tombs, the two buildings are scheduled for demolition, but Haas and Snyder recently won a temporary restraining order on May 13 against the city over its plan to remove the artwork when it demolishes the buildings. The order could lead to a long-term injunction.

The artists claim that the city’s plan violates the copyright law’s “moral rights” in their creations. The art affected a sculpture called “Solomon’s Throne,” a geometric labyrinth of colored pavers, murals, columns and friezes. The art was commissioned in 1985 by the city to occupy the space between the two towers.

Removing context violates trademark

The artists’ suit cites the Visual Artists Rights Act, which is a Copyright Act provision designed to protect works of a certain stature from being modified, mutilated, distorted or destroyed unless the artist gives permission.

The Tombs is located in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. The area was formerly known as the Five Points, an infamous Lower Manhattan slum occupied by newly arrived immigrants in the 19th century. The artists argue that their art “represents the immigrant communities of the Lower East Side, illustrates overlapping cultures,” and “conveys a desire of justice for all those being detained.”

The artists also argued that removing the art from the current setting would make it incomplete, with less value because there is not the same context of the immigrant struggle and wish for justice.

Finding a solution

A spokesperson for the city says it has worked closely with the artists to “document, preserve, and re-install or reproduce the artworks.” But according to the suit, the city has plans to remove and store parts of it at Riker’s Island until installing it in a yet-to-be-built building at a yet-to-be-determined alternative site.

Ideally, the artists and the city will agree on the artworks’ future, but it could be a while before that happens because the U.S. District Court’s temporary restraining order means that the artists’ case has legal merit.

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