Street Artists Threatening McDonald’s with Legal Action

Photo credit: Chris Estes

Six Brooklyn street artists are threatening legal action against McDonald’s, claiming the fast food chain did not obtain their permission to feature their work in an advertising campaign, according to an article in the Daily Beast by Lizzie Crocker.

On behalf of the six artists, New York attorney Andrew Gerber sent a letter to McDonald’s on April 19 threatening imminent legal action, claiming the fast food chain featured the artists’ graffiti murals in a new Dutch ad campaign without their permission.

The four-minute “McDonald’s Presents the Vibe of Bushwick” video highlights graffiti murals that have become synonymous with the Brooklyn neighborhood’s art scene.

It raises the question of how seriously church leaders weigh the potential risks of using visual images without obtaining permission from the creator or owner of the work. Most churches think about copyrights and licensing when they use music, but quite often they are unaware that permission must be obtained for using copyrighted visual images, like photographs, paintings, illustrations, cartoons, and even sculptures.

Let’s look at a brief summary of the eight works of authorship that can be copyrighted:

  1. Music (with any accompanying lyrics)
  2. Sound recordings (separate from the music, speech, drama, or other works on the recording)
  3. Dramatic
  4. Literary works (novels, short stories, essays, poems, prose, speeches, sermons, etc.)
  5. Visual images (photographs, paintings, illustrations, cartoons, and even sculptures)
  6. Audio Video (films, videos, video games, media)
  7. Choreography and pantomime
  8. Architecture (blueprints or designs)

Church websites contain many types of visual images, and it is vital that the church either owns the images or has written permission to use them on their site. In addition, churches often feature photographs, illustrations, and paintings during their services, to complement the worship service or sermon. In the featured photograph (photo by Chris Estes), you will notice the visual image contains a home blueprint design; potentially, the architecture design could also be copyrighted and may require permission to copy and display it. Ideally, a church staff member could create the slide and avoid any need for licensing or permission.

There are some important, practical guidelines churches can follow to avoid the risk of copyright infringement when they use a variety of visual images. Here are just five:

  1. Make sure your webmaster does not post any images without written permission to use them, or instructions that the images are either owned or leased by the church. Authorize the website manager or webmaster to make the decision regarding whether or not an image can be uploaded and published.
  2. Whenever possible, use a royalty-free image service like iStock, Getty, Shutterstock, Lightstock, or 20Twenty. Be sure to read the agreement terms and know exactly how the images can and can not be used.
  3. If you have photographs of children and church members, make certain you have signed consent and release forms from the parents or individuals. Churches have been sued and suffered heavy penalties for publishing photographs of individuals who had not granted permission to do so. This applies to your website, as well as ads, brochures, and print publications.
  4. Utilize the talents and gifts of your staff and volunteers. If you or any of your staff members have experience with photography or illustrations, ask them to take photos or create images with specific themes you can use on your website or during your services. Be sure to give them a credit line and have a simple written agreement that specifies the staff member or volunteer is granting the church permission to use the image.
  5. Instruct your staff that it is not legal to copy images from the internet and publish them anywhere on your website or for reproduction in media or print material. I call this the right-click-copy-paste syndrome. Because an image is easy to copy does not mean it is legal. The only exception is if they obtain permission from the original creator (often the website on which an image appears does not own the image), or if there is a public notice that the image may be used without permission.

Susan Fontaine Godwin is CCS’s founder/CVO, an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 32 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management. Susan is an author and speaker and frequently writes for several Christian magazines and online publications. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Mobile.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.” CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration, and advocacy for copyright owners. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.