Thursday 12 February 2015

French Mayor Sued by Artist for Repainting Fountain Without Authorization

A French sculptor is suing the mayor of Hayange, a French town in Lorraine, for having repainted one of his works without authorization. The sculptor filed suit in Nancy last week, seeking 10,000 Euros in moral damages.  

Alain Mila created a fountain, composed of a rectangular natural granite stone block, which stands in a small pool and is pierced in the middle by a round conduit carrying out splashing water over a big egg. The work has been publicly displayed in Hayange since 2001, after it was bought by the then socialist mayor and mayoral team.

De Gustibus…

The newly elected Front National (FN) mayor of the town, Fabien Engelman, found the fountain quite ugly (“affreuse”) and he took the matter into his own hands last July. He had the egg repainted in baby blue and the fountain pool repainted in a darker shade of blue. The mayor was quoted in a local paper explaining he wanted to “cheer up the town” and that the town  had also repainted the barriers to that effect…

As the Front National represents itself as a patriotic, France above all kind of party, one wonders what may have triggered the choice of baby blue for an egg. I do not know of any French chicken producing blue eggs, and robins are not common in France. Alain Mila, the creator of the sculpture, noted that one of the colors used to repaint the fountain was similar to the color of the Front National logo. Indeed, the extreme-right party favors  blue, especially navy blue, which allows for a play on the words “Bleu Marine,” Marine being the first name of the current head of the FN, Marine Le Pen.

The office of Aurélie Filippetti, who was at the time French Minister of Culture, issued a statement about the painting of the fountain, writing that:

This is a clear violation of the moral right and the basic rules of the Code of Intellectual Property and protection of patrimony. This incident is indicative of the cultural policy concepts of the elected officials of the Front National, which calls for greater vigilance. Aurélie  Filippetti is surprised that one can decide to "paint a work so it is more decorative" in defiance of its creation and of the crafts trade which are  entitled to expect, on the part of those responsible for  enforcing the law, respect for their rights and for the integrity of their work. The Minister of Culture and Communication recalls that works of art belonging to the State public domain or to public authorities are inalienable and cannot be sold. Consequently, these works cannot be modified or even moved, let alone destroyed without the permission of the artist or his successors in title. They cannot in any case be sold.”

The mayor then ordered the paint to be removed, but the restoration was not quite finished, and the stripping of the paint even damaged the work. Negotiations between the mayor and the artist did not lead to an agreement, and Mr. Mila filed suit.

Droit Moral
Mr. Mila deplored this act in the press, saying that it was an attack on his works and his personal values.  

Indeed, article 121-1 of French Intellectual Property Code (FIPC) provides that the author has a moral right over the respect of his work. This right is “attached to his person” and so it is a personal right. However, the law does not directly provide for compensation.  Article 6bis of the Berne Convention also provides authors the right “to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to… [the] work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”  French law has a larger scope than article 6bis, as the changes made to the work do not have to be proven prejudicial to the honor or reputation of the author.

French courts have regularly found that the moral right of an artist has been infringed because of changes made without authorization. Such changes found to be illegal were adding a too brilliant varnish on a painting or using tacky colors to restore a painting. I have not found the complaint in our case, but I have found a November 28, 1988 case from the Tribunal administratif of Montpellier where the court found that a town which had destroyed a monumental sculpture without the consent of its creator was liable for this action, and sentenced it to damages.  

I believe that Mr. Mila is likely to prevail in his claim, and I will keep us posted on further developments. 

Image is courtesy of Flickr user Calsidyrose under a CC BY 2.0 license

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