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Holy Lawsuit, Batman ! : Artist Says His Work Was 'Cheapened' by New Film

June 26, 1995|CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While millions of moviegoers were thrilled when "Batman Forever" was released on June 16, Andrew Leicester says he was downright disgusted.

It wasn't just that he didn't like the movie. He says he didn't like the way it ruined his artwork.

Leicester filed a copyright infringement suit against Warner Bros. last week in Los Angeles claiming that a public artwork he designed for the 801 Figueroa Tower, on the corner of 8th and Figueroa streets, was the basis for a studio set design in "Batman Forever." Not only does the design, with futuristic pillars and bat-shaped gates, appear frequently in the film, it's also featured in promotional art and merchandise for the film.

"The work will never be the same," Leicester, 47, says. "It's been distorted and cheapened."

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Leicester, in a phone interview Friday from Kansas City, Mo., where he is working on a another public art project, said that Warner Bros. officials have admitted to him that they copied the artwork, which is a sculpted courtyard titled "Zanja Madre," but he says the movie company claims to have received permission from Los Angeles-based R&T Development, which owns the 801 Figueroa Tower.

Both Warner Bros. and R&T Development declined to comment on the matter.

Leicester, a Minneapolis-based artist, was commissioned by R&T Development in 1992 to build "Zanja Madre" as part of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency's mandate that developers spend 1% of their building costs on public art.

Mickey Gustin, arts planner for the CRA, says that with all public artworks the agency oversees, the artist is granted the copyright, but individual licensing and reproduction agreements are negotiable between the artist and the developer who hires them.

While R&T Development owns "Zanja Madre," Leicester's attorney Greg Wood says that the agreement between Leicester and R&T only gave the company permission to reproduce the artwork on brochures for possible tenants.

"Just because someone owns a piece of artwork doesn't mean they can license it out to whomever they want or reproduce it however they want," Wood says.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified statutory damages. However, Wood said that Leicester could deserve as much as $50 million to $500 million, depending on how many times the artwork has been reproduced.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law school professor who specializes in copyright law and who is not involved in the case, said he believes Leicester has a strong basis for his suit, based on the available facts.

"When the point of a movie shot is to capture a specific area like downtown Los Angeles, for instance, then it's all right if the shot happens to contain a copyrighted object, say if there's a certain fresco or even a billboard in the shot," Volokh says. "But if you're creating a fictional Gotham City, I don't think you can make the same incidental claim."

Nevertheless, several lawyers agree that Warner Bros. might argue that if the designers knowingly copied the artwork, they did so in the belief that the art has become an identifiable symbol of the downtown landscape and is open to fair use.

Most important, says a lawyer from another major film studio who declined to be identified, is whether Warner Bros. believed that R&T had the right to license out the artwork and operated in good faith to the developer's claims.

Both Wood and Volokh say this argument would be weakened if Leicester's claim that the studio never contacted him is true.

"Why wouldn't they contact the artist?" Wood asks.

"They definitely have a strong argument that Warner Bros. should have at least contacted [Leicester] if they wanted to use his design," Volokh says.

Leicester claims he first discovered the similarities between the "Batman" set and his art a month ago, when a friend told him to look through a magazine that had pictures of the set.

"There was an article on the whole new look of Gotham City, and they were bragging about how creative the design team had been, which was ironic because their design obviously lacked originality," Leicester says. "I then went through the rest of the magazine rack and found about five or six other magazines with pictures of the same design. I was dumbfounded, really, because my artwork was by far the primary image they were using to present the new Gotham City."

Had Leicester been offered a deal ahead of time from Warner Bros. to use his design for "Zanja Madre," he said he "absolutely, definitely" would not have agreed to it.

"The movie is so transparently about money," he says. "I don't want ["Zanja Madre"] associated with it, though it's a little too late for that. My artwork wasn't about comic books and movie violence."

"Zanja Madre," which means "mother ditch" in Spanish, is designed to be about Los Angeles' dependency on man-made water systems and the city's topography as a flourishing, fertile organism within a dry, desert setting. The work was created at a time when drought was a major concern in the city.

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