In Norwich, England, a dispute arose between two unlikely parties: the estate of Freddie Mercury, formerly of the legendary rock band Queen, and the organizers of the Go Go Gorilla charity initiative, a public art trail. The subject matter of this dispute: an alleged infringement of copyright in the distinctive yellow and white suit worn by the late rock star. The “Radio Go Go” Gorilla is one of 53 life-size gorillas decorated by professional Norfolk artists, schools and community groups and displayed on the streets of Norwich this summer as public art.The sculptures are to remain up for 11 weeks, before they are auctioned off to raise money for a variety of charities, including “Born Free”—a wildlife conservation organization—and “Break”—supporting children and families across East Anglia. Organizers of the Go Go Gorillas were contacted by Queen’s manager Jim Beach on behalf of the Freddie Mercury estate, informing them that the gorilla’s painted suit infringed on Freddie’s iconic style. Beach asked that the sculpture be removed from Millennium Plain, which it was last week. Director Charlie Langhorne chose to take down the gorilla rather than deal with the fall out of a potential infringement suit.
Local Norfolk artist Mik Richardson, who created the gorilla’s look, was very disappointed. The BBC reported on his sentiments: “The decision to order its removal was “absolutely shocking.” He said: “It’s dreadful. It’s petty, really. The night I was told I couldn’t sleep.” Mr Richardson was paid £800 to design and paint the gorilla. “I’m a mural artist and I have to be very careful about copyright,” he said. “I didn’t copy the suit exactly. I alter enough so that it’s fan art, rather than a copy of it.”
Also disappointed was Martin Green of “Break.” He told the BBC that “it’s a disappointing position they have put us in. Freddie is one of our most popular gorillas on the trail and now we’ve got to remove him from the streets.” An added complication: Queen guitarist Brian May is among the Born Free Foundation’s supporters, which was set to benefit from the October auction of the Freddie Mercury gorilla to help support conservation projects in the Congo.
The Freddie Mercury estate had no comment.
This was certainly the least costly way for Go Go Gorilla to handle the situation, but what was the best way for the Freddie Mercury estate to deal with this? IP holders may be within their rights to assert ownership and protect copyright, but famous rights holders have the added pressure of managing popular perception in these cases. The Mercury estate does not appear in the most flattering light for appearing to bully the charity auction. The “Art and Artifice” blog suggested that an “ideal solution would have been for Freddie Mercury’s estate to buy the gorilla by making a charity donation, which would have saved a lot of bad publicity and purchased some goodwill into the bargain.” This is certainly a less aggressive way to handle the dispute, and one that makes the estate seem less petty. But should owners of famous copyrights have to endorse causes and uses they did not initially authorize merely to avoid bad press? As the plethora of news outlets, blogs, and public fora increases with the development of online media, pressures created by this “bad press” issue will only intensify.