McDonald’s slapped with lawsuit by New York graffiti artist

McDonald’s is being sued by the estate of late graffiti artist Dashiell ‘Dash’ Snow for copyright infringement in the latest legal battle over street art.

Lawyers for ‘Secret Snow’, as the artist was also known, allege that the restaurant mega-chain infringed his copyright when it used an image from Snow’s work to decorate the interior of its fast-food outlets. The complaint was filed in the United States Central District Court of California on 3 October 2016. 

Snow, a cult New York ‘artist and provocateur’ died in 2009. His works have fetched six-figure sums at Sotheby’s and Christies auction houses and have been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally. In 2006, the Wall Street Journal called him a ‘young master’.

Snow’s lawyers claim McDonald’s copied the artist’s stylised signature of his pseudonym “SACE” to emblazon the walls of its new graffiti-themed restaurants including one in South London. Upon discovering that his artwork had been used in June 2016, Snow’s family asked McDonald’s to remove it. According to the complaint, McDonald’s ‘arrogantly refused to comply’ despite the ‘obvious infringement’.

The artist’s estate also argues that McDonald’s is ‘clearly attempting to trade on Mr. Snow’s name and reputation’. Exploiting Snow’s work is considered all the more damaging because ‘nothing is more antithetical to Mr. Snow’s outsider “street cred” than association with corporate consumerism’. By suggesting an affiliation between the artist and the restaurant giant Snow’s estate contends that McDonald’s has diminished the value of the artist’s work.

In its analysis of the case, Art Law Report writes that it reflects the normalisation of street art copyright infringement claims in the US. The claims are directed straight towards obtaining compensation for breach of copyright without questioning the existence of any such right in street art.

Art Law Report suggests the case for actual copying of Snow’s work is not even as strong as it might first appear. Juxtaposing an image of Snow’s signature and the interior of a McDonald’s restaurant in London reveals differences in the appearance of the two images.

From the defendant’s perspective, Art Law Report also wonders whether McDonald’s might be aided by the very ‘street cred’ argument which Snow’s estate is attempting to wield against it. By distancing the artist from the corporate and consumer culture that McDonald’s is said to represent, have Snow’s lawyers made it easier for the restaurant to claim ‘fair use’? This argument is based on the idea that a ‘transformative’ secondary use with little impact on the market for the original work may be lawful.

Perhaps McDonald’s use of Snow’s work is so ‘transformative’ and harbours so little potential for market harm given the very public nature of his work that a McVictory might be in order.

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