Director Terry Gilliam is being sued over a mural in his new movie "Zero Theorem" that street artists claim he lifted from a real-life mural in Argentina.
In a suit filed in federal court in Illinois on Wednesday, a group of street artists (two from Argentina and one from Canada) claim that Gilliam's newest film infringes on a copyright they hold on the "Castillo" mural in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the plaintiffs claim that a mural covering the protagonist's living quarters in "Zero Theorem" is a rip-off of their well known work.
Can you copyright a mural, and if so, did Terry Gilliam infringe on it?
Sure, You Can Copyright a Mural
Sure there are issues in America with urban street artists creating their works in violation of city and state laws, but that doesn't mean a graffiti mural cannot be art. Artistic expression that is fixed in a tangible form can usually be copyrighted, even if it takes the shape of a street artist's mural.
The specific instance of creative expression is what's protected by a copyright, not the idea or even the concept behind an artistic piece. This is one of the reasons why recipes cannot be copyrighted but recipe books can. The artists in the "Zero Theorem" lawsuit actually registered their mural with the Argentine copyright office in 2013. It may have helped that the trio legally created the work in a designated "street art zone" in 2010, and it has remained there since.
Still, there is no such thing as an international copyright; however, rights extended to foreign works under U.S. law may be granted by international treaties. And as it turns out, the United States and Argentina have agreed to share copyright protections with one another since 1934.
Is Gilliam's Mural Infringing on the Argentine One?
Based on the element-by-element comparison in the complaint, the murals don't just look similar, they allegedly look like carbon copies. In deciding whether the "12 Monkeys" director actually infringed on the artists' copyright to "Castillo," a court would likely need to determine whether the depicted mural in "Zero Theorem" is fair use or infringement.
The odds may weigh against Gilliam here. In the suit, the artists remind the federal court that the director has lifted artists' works without credit or compensation in some of his prior films.