Indonesian Theme Park Filled With Art Knockoffs Loses Copyright Suit By Artist’s Estate
06/10/2021A couple of years ago, we wrote about “Rabbit Town,” a “selfie tourism” theme park in Indonesia where visitors can take photographs set against fantastical backdrops. The park charges admission for access to the park, which features several attractions that essentially recreate famous art installations from around the world, including works by Yayoi Kusama and imitations of scenes from the Museum of Ice Cream. The Rabbit Town versions often have different titles and do not credit the original artist.
At the time, we wrote, “The oddly audacious copying of artwork at Rabbit Town illustrates a simple fact about artists who want to defend their intellectual property rights; that mission gets more complicated when an issue crosses international borders, because there is no universal international copyright law that protects an artwork all over the world. Many countries have treaties with one another where they have reached certain agreements about how their copyright laws might interact. But as a general matter, each country makes its own copyright law… [and] an artist would generally sue in the country where the infringement happened, and the case would be governed by that jurisdiction’s copyright law. Artists have to weigh whether to spend their time and resources to litigate in a foreign country.”
Now, Rabbit Town is facing a court order to destroy one of its attractions, an installation called “Love Light,” which is strikingly similar to Urban Light, a work by the late artist Chris Burden. The original installation, featuring rows of lampposts, is at LACMA in California. (Burden’s estate likely learned about the Rabbit Town copy thanks to the many tourists who posted images of it on social media.) Burden’s estate sued the park in the Indonesian court system in mid-2020 following failed settlement talks. According to press reports, a judge has now determined that the Rabbit Town version met the definition of copyright infringement under Indonesian law. The defendants have been ordered to publicly apologize to the estate and to pay the estate nearly $70,000 (an amount which, while significant, is reportedly far less than what the estate had originally requested). Additionally, the defendants were given 30 working days to demolish the installation itself as well as any goods containing images of it. As of this writing, it’s unclear whether that destruction has physically occurred yet. Another interesting tidbit is that the plaintiffs apparently had to prove that the defendants knew about the Burden work; they accomplished this at trial by presenting photographs of the park’s owner and his daughters visiting the Burden installation at LACMA.
We have written before (see here and here for some examples) about how when it comes to copyright infringement, independent artists may be unable or unwilling to incur the time and expense needed to pursue legal action; indeed, a new small-claims process recently introduced in the United States aims to mitigate some of these economic imbalances that impact artists’ ability to protect their intellectual property. But the Rabbit Town case reminds us that these challenges are magnified even further when copyright disputes cross international borders. As with domestic copyright claims, an artist (or his or her estate) must generally be willing to invest a significant expenditure of time, money, and energy. But beyond that, artists facing copyright violations occurring overseas may find themselves needing to litigate not only in a faraway venue but under an unfamiliar copyright regime; here, the dispute was governed by Indonesian law, not American copyright law, and required litigation regarding issuessuch as what recordation was required with an Indonesian IP office in order to bring the suit. And the cost of litigating in Indonesia, including a trial with expert witnesses, was likely significant in relation to the amount of damages the estate ultimately received. This case shows that it is not impossible for artist plaintiff to protect a copyright in the international arena, but it remains to be seen whether the ruling serves as a meaningful deterrent for current and future infringers.
Art Law Blog