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Intellectual Property Insights from Fishman Stewart
Mini Article – Volume 21, Issue 12

Bullets Fly in Dispute Over Artist’s Rights

By Zachary P. Grant

Musician Ryan Edward Upchurch found himself in the legal “firing line” after he took literal aim at two paintings by visual artist Jacob Aaron LeVeille. In a lawsuit filed by LeVeille in 2019, the visual artist claimed that Upchurch intentionally mutilated two of LeVeille’s paintings in a 2018 video posted on Upchurch’s Instagram and other social media accounts.

The video, which has since been taken down, shows Upchurch placing two paintings created by LeVeille against some heavy brush. One painting is a portrait of country star Johnny Cash and the other is a portrait of Upchurch. See the paintings HERE.

Upchurch, upset in the video, sneers “talking s*** to me when I done f****** helped you out when I didn’t f****** have nothing,” before shooting each painting with a shotgun and then a rifle. After shooting the paintings, Upchurch scrawled profanity-laced insults towards LeVeille on what remained of the Cash portrait and publicly auctioned off both pieces for an unknown sum.

LeVeille’s lawsuit alleged, among other things, copyright infringement and violations of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) for the intentional mutilation of artwork that would prejudice the artist’s reputation. VARA is rooted in “moral rights,” which not only protects the artwork, but also the artist’s integrity and honor.  VARA claims have historically arisen when an artist’s murals or other publicly displayed works are defaced or destroyed and the artist objects on moral rights grounds. The complaint specifically mentions that “Upchurch intentionally harmed LeVeille’s honor, reputation, and growing status as a visual artist” during Upchurch’s broadcasted destruction of the paintings.

Recently, both parties agreed to settle the matter and asked the court for time to file a stipulated dismissal of the case.  Given the complexity of the claims – especially the subjective nature of art and reputation – it is no surprise that parties would be amenable to settlement rather than continue the siege of legal fire.

The entertainment and fine arts industries are seeing increasing value in the personalities of the artists, themselves, in addition to their art. Along with common copyright claims, artists may consider their options for protecting their honor and reputation.

Published November 19, 2021