Artists score early win in lawsuit over NYC jail demolition

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REUTERS/Allison Joyce

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  • Lawsuit says removal would violate part of federal copyright law
  • Court blocks city action for now

(Reuters) - Artists Kit-Yin Snyder and Richard Haas, who created several works of art at the Manhattan Detention Complex in New York's Chinatown, won a temporary restraining order Friday against the city over its plan to remove their art when it demolishes the complex.

Snyder and Haas said in a Thursday lawsuit that the city's plan violates a provision of federal copyright law that protects their "moral rights" in their creations. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan's Friday ruling ordered the city not to alter the art until after a hearing next Wednesday on a potential longer-term injunction.

The art affected includes friezes, murals, columns, a sculpture called "Solomon's Throne," and a "geometric labyrinth of colored pavers."

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The city commissioned the art between the two towers of the complex, also known as "The Tombs," in 1985. The artists said their work "represents the immigrant communities of the Lower East Side, illustrates overlapping cultures," and "conveys a desire of justice for all those being detained."

A spokesperson for New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs said in a statement that the city has "worked closely with the artists" on a plan to "document, preserve, and re-install or reproduce the artworks."

An attorney for the artists declined to comment.

Snyder and Haas sued under the Visual Artists Rights Act, a provision of the federal Copyright Act that protects works of "recognized stature" from being distorted, modified, mutilated or destroyed without the artist's permission.

New York's city council approved a plan in 2019 to demolish the complex and build a new jail, which the lawsuit said included measures to store parts of the artwork on Riker's Island before eventually recreating it at the new facility or an unnamed alternative site.

The artists said that removing the art from the site would violate VARA.

"Without the context of the geographical location in which the works are installed, the vision depicted by Plaintiffs' work will be incomplete and the immigrant struggle and wish for justice that are depicted in the works will lose their value," the lawsuit said.

The artists also said that the removal plan would "completely destroy" some of the works. Snyder and Haas called the lawsuit a "last resort" to save them.

The case is Snyder v. Adams, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 1:22-cv-03873.

For Snyder: Robert Friedman of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton

For the city: Unknown

(NOTE: This story has been updated with comment from a New York City spokesperson.)

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Blake Brittain reports on intellectual property law, including patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Reach him at blake.brittain@thomsonreuters.com