16 March 2012

Leading Australian artist awarded damages for unjustified threats in controversial copyright case

The Federal Court of Australia this week awarded Aboriginal activist artist, Richard Bell, damages of $147,000 against New York filmmaker Tanya Steele. King & Wood Mallesons represented Mr Bell in the proceedings.

Richard Bell engaged Tanya Steele to assist him in the making of an art film “The Blackfella’s Guide to New York” in 2010, when Mr Bell was a fellow at the Location One studio in New York.

Ms Steele then claimed that she owned the copyright in Mr Bell’s film, and caused the Vimeo website to remove the film from public exhibition.

Mr Bell sued Ms Steele in Australia, asserting that he owned the copyright in the film, and seeking damages for the losses suffered due to Ms Steele’s threats.

In agreeing with Mr Bell, the Federal Court said:

"It is clear the client made groundless threats against both the applicant and his agent, Mr Milani."

Mr Bell said “These threats have been hanging over my head and impacting my reputation.  But Ms Steele’s aggressive actions have backfired in her face.  I have been vindicated.  She will not try to mess with an Aussie again I am sure.”

Josh Milani, of Milani Galleries, said “Richard is one of Australia’s most significant artists.  It is good to see the legal system working to protect Australian artists from spurious threats made from New York.”

John Swinson of King & Wood Mallesons, who argued the case for Mr Bell, said “This is the first time damages have been awarded where a third party had content removed from the Internet without legal justification.  Even though the Vimeo file was hosted outside of Australia, its improper removal caused Mr Bell significant damage in Australia.  The court compensated Mr Bell for this loss.”

Mr Bell has engaged well-known New York copyright lawyer, Jonathan Reichman, to enforce the judgment against Ms Steele in New York.

Last year, Mr Bell caused some controversy when he selected the winner of the Sulman art prize by tossing a coin.  A portrait of Richard Bell by artist Luke Roberts is a current finalist for the Archibald Prize.

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