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Don’t save the whale

We admire whales as much as anyone. But with all respect to the artist currently known as Wyland, there are other airbrush wielders who can produce a respectable image of a cetacean’s flukes among the waves. Now that the Laguna Beach muralist has revoked California’s right to use his artwork on a license plate, the state should happily swim off in a new direction.

The deal under which the one-name artist’s whale-tail design was donated to adorn more than 125,000 specialty plates smacks more of surfer-dude thinking than legal smarts. Wyland, after all, has made a worldwide splash and a lot of money with his airbrushed renderings of idealized marine life, and California is, well, California. Wouldn’t you think the two powerhouses could have come up with a more solid agreement 14 years ago than an oral understanding that, it turns out, wasn’t an understanding at all?

The higher fees for specialty plates in California go to support various organizations. In the case of the popular Wyland plates, a third of the money goes to the state Coastal Commission and the rest to other environmental groups.

But Wyland has his own nonprofit foundation and wanted 20% of the state’s profits from his plates -- about $700,000 a year -- donated to it. He worked out a similar deal, for 10%, with Florida, but for California, this is a load of blubber. The Wyland plates have been prettifying cars for years, but the state Department of Motor Vehicles isn’t a marketing tool for any individual’s ventures, for profit or not. No commissions in return for the use of intellectual property.

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“The whale tail is my art and my idea,” Wyland spouted off to The Times. “I’m sticking up for artists’ rights, for the common person.”

Not that common people generally travel the world painting gigantic cetacean murals, but we get the concept. Wyland’s donation of the license plate design, however temporary, was a terrific gift -- for the state, its drivers and for him. He’s had thousands of free mini-billboards all over the freeways this last decade.

Now that he’s bowed out, the state has an opportunity to showcase a new artist. So here’s an idea to help the art world, education and the environment all at once: Hold a competition among California’s art students for a new ocean plate, with a $10,000 scholarship for the winner. And this time, make sure the kid signs a written agreement.


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