Muralist Takes On Internet Image Provider


Muralist Susan Cervantes knows the real work in creating public art often comes long after the paintbrushes have been put away.

For years the 56-year-old artist, who has rendered Latino and feminist-inspired murals throughout this city’s working-class Mission District, has fought what she says is intellectual copyright theft by firms that used her work for posters and ads without permission.

But now Cervantes is up against perhaps the biggest opponent of all: the Internet and Bill Gates.


Cervantes is part of a federal lawsuit filed by the United Farm Workers union against an Internet retailer founded by the dot-com guru. The suit claims that Corbis Corp. has pirated more than a dozen public mural images in the Mission District, including likenesses of UFW founder Cesar Chavez as well as the union’s slogan, Si, se puede!

The firm bills itself as the Internet’s leading provider of photography and fine art, with 65 million images, 2.1 million of which are sold online. Featuring images ranging from Ansel Adams prints to historic jazz and baseball photographs, Corbis allows customers to purchase, e-mail, print and license digital images from its Web site.

The issues in the Cervantes suit, lawyers say, echo the debate over the Internet’s unauthorized spread of digitized music.

“The artists who have created the music and invested their time into something people like aren’t being properly compensated,” said Brooke Oliver, a San Francisco lawyer representing Cervantes and the union. “An important difference is that while trades music for personal use, Corbis sells to the commercial marketplace--for advertising brochures and media campaigns.”

For Cervantes, the issue is not just the money lost over any unauthorized sales; it’s a matter of control over her art. She fears that her mural images could end up being used by causes--such as commercial credit cards--that run counter to her beliefs.

“They’re stealing our work,” she said. “The last thing I’d ever like to see are these images turning up on some credit card. I mean, I’ve never even owned a credit card my whole life. It just makes you feel violated that your work is not being respected the way it should be.”


Done in bold flourishes of green, yellow and orange, the art at stake in the suit is site-specific and often carries a special significance concerning the places where it’s painted, Cervantes says.

One mural is a massive splash of color and culture that covers two outside walls of the historic Women’s Building in the Mission District, one of the nation’s first women-owned and operated community centers.

Called “Maestrapeace,” the mural illustrates the contributions made by average women of various cultures worldwide. It was completed in 1994 after more than a year of work by an all-woman team of seven artists and 80 volunteers.

“The mural is beautiful,” said Teresa Mejia, executive director of the Women’s Building, which houses nonprofits that provide women’s services. “It says something about who we are, about the people we are trying to serve.”

Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the UFW, says the case illustrates the threat posed by the Internet to the works of nonprofit groups and struggling painters who often lack the money or resources to fight the theft of their copyright.

“Let me tell you something: Microsoft--another company owned by Bill Gates--would be outraged if someone tried to steal its Windows program or put it on the Internet for easy download; they’d jump all over them,” he said. “They understand the concept of intellectual property when it comes to their property, that’s for sure.”

The artists own the copyright to their work and the labor union long ago acquired the registration for its trademark Aztec black eagle logo. The suit calls for unspecified damages and seeks to enjoin Corbis from using any allegedly pilfered images--including likenesses of Chavez and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, Grossman said.

“This isn’t any small matter for us,” he said. “We’re extremely tired of this kind of thing.”

Michelle Griffon, a spokeswoman for Corbis, said the company would not comment until the firm’s lawyers had seen the suit.

Attorney Oliver said everyone from airlines to beer companies, banks and gas stations has attempted to use images copyrighted by the farm workers union.

She said that as “the Latino market has become bigger and more vital,” companies have tried to usurp for commercial use such slogans as Si, se puede (“Yes, it can be done”), coined by UFW founder Chavez during a hunger strike for workers’ rights in Arizona in 1972.

“The airline Aeromexico began using Si, se puede and even tried to copyright the phrase in Mexico,” said Oliver. “Thousands of farm workers took 30 years to build up that slogan, and it’s theirs.”

Oliver said the Internet poses a larger threat to intellectual copyrights because pirated images can be sold throughout the world--in many places where such sales are difficult to track.

“Companies like Corbis shouldn’t be able to profit from illegally selling images that have become valuable symbols only through the tireless effort of people like Susan Cervantes and others,” she said.

Grossman said the Corbis site has sold copies of such murals as “The Five Sacred Colors of Corn,” which depicts a woman giving birth with the help of her husband, and “El Lenguaje Mundo del Alma” (“The Silent Language of the Soul”), painted above the schoolyard at Cesar Chavez Elementary in the Mission District.

On its Web site, Corbis offers several ways to license an image, including “traditional image licensing” and “royalty-free image licensing,” in which pictures can immediately be downloaded and altered to create individual art.

“The company argues that they tell people they have to get the rights cleared before using the images,” Grossman said. “But whether or not they do that, they’re still selling images without permission.”

Legal experts say that copyright challenges of companies that do business on the Internet are becoming commonplace.

“The Internet is a way of disseminating images and information much more broadly and quickly than anything we have had before--and so if there is a potential copyright infringement, it’s going to be on a much grander scale,” said Mark Steiner, a San Francisco attorney specializing in trademark and copyright law.

“The thinking of many on the Net is that information is free and isn’t bound by intellectual property laws.”

Although copyright infringement didn’t start with the Internet, adds San Francisco trademark lawyer John Hughes, the medium has made the practice more widespread: “The fact that it’s easier makes such practices more common. Anyone can start a Web site and begin doing business.”

Women’s Building director Mejia says her organization is careful to give credit in any mention or use of the art that graces its structure.

“Any time we mention the mural or sell photographs, we mention the artists and their copyright,” she said. “And if we can recognize their ownership, why can’t some big company on the Internet do the same thing?”

Standing outside the Women’s Building, gazing up four floors at the image of a pregnant woman and her child that she painted while perched on a scaffold in 1994, Cervantes says the murals being offered for Internet sale are akin to the Sistine Chapel of the Latino women’s movement.

“There’s nothing else like this mural in the world--designed and painted by women for women,” she said of “Maestrapeace.” “This work of art was a gift to the community. And that’s where any profits should go, not into the pockets of some Internet company.”