The University of Alabama Bullies an Artist

Trademark bullying is a scourge of our times, a legal strategy for the well-heeled to own and control culture. The latest example is the University of Alabama lawsuit against a renowned painter of the university’s football team in action. Over the past 20 years, Daniel A. Moore has made artistic renderings of quarterbacks passing, tackles rushing and receivers exulting after touchdowns. Moore’s paintings sell for $65,000 a pop, watercolors for $22,000, and prints — of which he’s sold in “the low millions” -- for $25.

So what’s the University’s beef? That Moore’s paintings violate the university’s trademark in its “famous crimson and white color scheme,” according to The New York Times (November 12). Now that universities are becoming more business-minded -- spurred in part by cutbacks in public funding -- they have no compunction about propertizing anything in sight. They claim patents in basic research and software algorithms, copyrights in course curricula, and now trademarks in colors!

“This lawsuit is the equivalent of the Catholic Church suing Michelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel,” said Keith Dunnavant, the author of a biography of Bear Bryant, the famous ‘Bama football coach.

The comparison is funny until your realize that something like this has actually happened. Several years ago, the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles demanded that sculptor Robert Graham surrender the copyright to his acclaimed Great Bronze Doors of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Graham refused, saying that he never would have been able to design the doors in the first place had the Catholic Church claimed ownership in images of the Virgin Mary. In a separate case, the Vatican’s copyright agent, the Bridgeman Art Library in London, once threatened photo collage artist Barry Kite for his spoof, “The Sistine Bowl-Off,” which showed Michelangelo’s famous nudes bowling.

The University of Alabama lawsuit is primly cast as “balancing intellectual property rights against free expression” -- as if some careful, refined judgments needed to be made. That’s silly. The imbalance here is obvious. Trademark law is colonizing our shared cultural space, period. When a university can claim to own the colors of its sports teams and artistic depictions of them in action, freedom of expression is dead.

What is particularly depressing is what this episode reveals about the University administration?s pathetic self-image. Does it aspire to be a proud public institution, a respectful champion of culture, or the generous host of a revered football tradition? No. They all count for nothing. The University announces itself as a boorish Jerry Maguire: Just show me the money! The University also shows contempt for Daniel Moore’s considerable role in promoting the football team and nurturing fan loyalty through his art.

At some level, the University must understand how anti-social and ridiculous this lawsuit is. Its PR people repeatedly refused to let the Times interview any university officials or lawyers, ostensibly for legal reasons. I'm hoping that the public shaming on the front page of The New York Times may persuade the University of Alabama that it has a greater mission in life than in wringing every last nickel from our common culture while stomping on the First Amendment.