Judge Sides With Immersive Art Company Meow Wolf In Artist’s Copyright Infringement Case

A federal judge in New Mexico has dismissed an artist’s claims that the art corporation Meow Wolf infringed on her copyright. Lauren Olivercreated and erected a monumental sculpture known as Space owl in the popular House of Eternal Return (HoER) an immersive attraction in Santa Fe, New Mexico, filed its initial complaint in March 2020, accusing Meow Wolf of breach of contract and violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), among other claims, by using Space owl image in supplementary material. She is suing the company for more than $1 million, arguing that she was not fairly compensated for her work, which is at the center of her environment dedicated to climate change Quellette Ice Station (ISQ).

New Mexico District Court Judge Kirtan Khalsa said in an order filed Sept. 12 that Meow Wolf “owns an irrevocable implied license to display the work” on the Santa Fe site. Implied licenses allow certain uses of a protected work by the licensee, a party that typically paid to create the work, or some physical form of the licensor’s intellectual property (IP). “Plaintiff’s objective intent was to grant an implied license to display ISQ to the entity or entities operating the HoER for the first ten years,” Khalsa wrote, referring to Meow Wolf’s ten-year lease for the Santa Fe building.

Oliver first created her character Space Owl, a furry, wide-eyed creature with horns, in 2006. In 2015, she made a new version of him for HoER, Meow Wolf’s first permanent installation, which occupies 20,000 square feet of a former auditorium bowling with Instagram-ready captivating art. At that time, Meow Wolf was not established and did not exist as an artistic collective. Representatives offered Oliver a $1,000 stipend, covered some material costs, and noted in an initial email that she would retain all intellectual property rights, though Meow Wolf would own the final work. They also offered her a $10,000 “revenue share stipend,” which founder Sean DiYanni later described as “essentially a verbal commitment to artists that we’ll pay out a portion of our revenue to artists once we reach a certain trigger period of revenue,” according to court documents. That number was later adjusted to $7,000.

According to Khalsa’s order, Oliver says she never received a contract, but Meow Wolf co-founder and senior creative director Katie Kennedy remembers going over a contract together. Oliver later redirected her scholarship to an artist who helped her install Space owl and ended up only getting a portion of his share of the proceeds because Meow Wolf had told Oliver that he had to perform an IP assignment to get the check. The company had also started calling its revenue-sharing program the “Artist Bonus Program,” which Oliver claimed in her 2020 suit, amounted to Meow Wolf co-founder Vince Kadlubek “making personal, arbitrary decisions about who gets what.”

“Although a significant portion of the value of ‘Meow Wolf’ is attributable to ISQ and Space Owl, to date Plaintiff has received only $2,000 from ‘Meow Wolf’ for her work,” Khalsa’s order said. HoER generated $6.8 million in revenue in its first year; in 2018 it welcomed its one millionth visitor and generated $90,000 on the most profitable day.

That same year, Oliver accused Meow Wolf of violating her rights when she noticed images of Space owl, which has become one of HoER’s signature attractions, in books sold in the venue’s gift shop, and in a documentary film. Kadlubek later gave her the opportunity to sell all rights to Space owl or remove the entire ISQ installation without further compensation. This, Oliver argued, would require the destruction of Space owl. In March 2021, her lawyer sent the defense a letter demanding that Meow Wolf stop showing ISQ.

But her previous behavior, the court ultimately ruled, suggested she was “far from objecting” to that display. The order notes that Oliver produced “ISQ-themed items to be sold on consignment in the HoER gift shop” and “actively sought to profit” from the installation, receiving more than $20,000 from those sales between 2016 and 2019.

“As such, the plaintiff’s conduct after the creation and delivery confirms its intent for the license to provide the operators of the HoER for the first ten years of operation of the exhibit,” the order reads. “Even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, [this case] involved multiple companies operating a single business that continuously used the plaintiff’s sole work as she intended it to be used.’

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