Detroit v. Mercedes? The Copyright Case that Could Affect Public Art Globally

Four Detroit-based artists and luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz are locked in a legal battle to decide who owns the copyright to a series of murals in the city’s Eastern Market neighborhood.

It’s a court case out of Detroit that has the art world at-large paying attention.

Earlier this year in March, Mercedes-Benz filed lawsuits against four Detroit-based artists including Daniel Bombardier (Enjoy Denial), Jeff Soto, Maxx Gramajo and James “Dabls” Lewis, who runs the MBAD African Bead Museum on the city’s westside.

The lawsuits were filed by the luxury automaker after the four artists threatened copyright infringement lawsuits against the company after Mercedes used their work as a backdrop in a series of ads for their G500 truck in 2018 without permission or compensation.

Mercedes is arguing “any artwork on any building is not protected. That would be a nuclear impact on the global artists community.” – Jeff Gluck, lawyer

In the lawsuit, filed at the federal courthouse in Detroit, Mercedes asserts that the artists don’t own the copyrights to the large-scale public murals they created. The company is seeking a declaration from the court that it isn’t copyright infringement because the photos they took were a fair use of the art itself.

In their suit, the company has stated that the focus of the photos was on the vehicle, not the artwork, but since the legal battle began Mercedes has deleted the controversial Instagram posts.

United States District Court - Eastern District
United States District Court – Eastern District

Three of the photos used by Mercedes in 2018 were shot in Eastern Market, which has become an internationally recognized hub for murals with the help of the annual Murals in the Market festival. The fifth annual installment of the festival starts this weekend on September 14th.

In that same federal court on Monday, Judge Avern Cohn heard arguments from Mercedes and from intellectual property lawyer Jeff Gluck, who represents the four artists in the case.

MetroTimes reports that at the Monday hearing, Judge Cohn said the murals are indeed “works of art” entitled to protection.

Gluck says if the Michigan federal judge were to side with Mercedes and decide the artists don’t have copyright claims to their work that it could have a “chilling effect” on artists around the country.

Click on the player above to hear lawyer Jeff Gluck explain the implications of the Mercedes lawsuit.

Mercedes is arguing “any artwork on any building is not protected,” says Gluck. “If courts were to agree with that, what would happen with the likely hundreds of thousands of murals and important pieces of public artwork? Would this allow companies to go to famous outdoor murals and just photograph them at will and use them for whatever they please? Obviously, that would be a nuclear impact on the global artists community and would completely strip away rights from anybody that has an outdoor mural.”


  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host of "In the Groove" on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.