A very real copyright infringement lawsuit has emerged from Wakanda, the fictional African nation at the heart of the Marvel superhero film and cultural sensation Black Panther.
The music video for the the centerpiece of the movie’s soundtrack, the Kendrick Lamar and SZA song “All the Stars,” has been viewed over 27 million times on YouTube and reached the number nine slot on the Billboard Hot 100 (the album rose to number one on the chart this week). But an artist is charging that parts of the video’s imagery were copied from her own artwork, according to federal court documents filed in New York on Tuesday.
British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor is suing Lamar, SZA, Universal Music Group, and others involved in the video’s production, alleging that the gold print patterns that appear in roughly 19 seconds of the video infringe on her artworks, which are painted in a similar style, using materials including 24-karat gold. Viktor is seeking damages, along with an injunction prohibiting the use of her work to promote the film and preventing the video from being shown further in public.
Critics and audiences have broadly hailed Black Panther, the first comic book with a black superhero, for its empowering depictions of race and gender. But Viktor’s complaint asserts that the alleged infringement of her work sends a message inconsistent with that of the film.
“Yet, in a bitter irony, the Defendants have ignored the wishes of the Artist, herself a Black African woman, whose life’s work is founded on an examination of the political and historical preconceptions of ‘blackness,’ liberation and womanhood,” the document reads.
Kendrick Lamar, SZA "All the Stars" directed by Dave Meyers & the little homies. Video via Vevo.
Marvel representatives and the company’s PR firm twice approached Viktor seeking permission to use her work, first in November 2016 and then again in December of 2017, according to the complaint. The first time, set decorator Jay Hart requested to use one of her paintings in the film itself, but the artist found that the “financial and artistic terms offered for her collaboration were not acceptable,” according to the complaint.
More than a year later, a representative of the DDA, the PR firm working on behalf of Marvel and Disney, contacted Viktor with the idea of creating Black Panther promotional material inspired by the film. Viktor, who was preparing for a presentation of her artwork at The Armory Show in New York in March 2018, again rejected the offer due to what she viewed as a restrictive licensing agreement.
Viktor first became aware of the alleged infringement after friends who viewed Lamar’s video, which was released in February, thought she had licensed her work. The section that prompted the lawsuit begins at around the 2:59 mark of the video, and shows Lamar walking through a gold-patterned set which the suit alleges “copies exactly or in close approximation” elements of work from Viktor’s “constellation series.”
Along with charging that the set copied the “look and feel” of Viktor’s series, the complaint lays out several specific smaller elements within the design that closely resemble parts of the artist’s work.
“Once someone copies specific forms and copies the total concept, look, and feel, then you’re into copyright infringement territory,” wrote Michael D. Murray, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law, in an email to Artsy.
On Monday, Viktor posted a statement on Facebook to thank the public for support and wrote, “Feel reassured—I am seeking justice.”
But a victory in court may still prove challenging. The general style of a piece is not copyrightable alone, experts say. And the defendants could argue that the specific elements highlighted by the suit are a small enough part of the overall set and video itself that they fall under the “de minimis” exception to copyright law.
“The case will largely be dependent on whether any of the similarities, any of the taking of the work, is subject to copyright protection,” said Yolanda M. King, a law professor at Northern Illinois University. “From a legal perspective, [Viktor] has an uphill battle,” King added.
Representatives for Lamar and the other parties in the dispute declined or could not be reached for comment. But some involved with the film have distanced themselves from the video. After the New York Times published a story on the dispute on February 11th, roughly a week ahead of the lawsuit, “the people involved in making the film said they played no role in the creation of the video,” according to the paper.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the nationality of Lina Iris Viktor. She is British-Liberian, not British-Nigerian.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory