Visual Arts

Art vs. Tech: Romero Britto sues Apple

Romero Britto talks to members of Big Brothers Big Sister of Greater Miami about their art collaboration at his studio.
Romero Britto talks to members of Big Brothers Big Sister of Greater Miami about their art collaboration at his studio. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Artist Romero Britto, known for his crayon-bright colors, black lines and bold patterns, is suing technology giant Apple and a London design firm in Miami federal court, contending that the centerpiece of Apple’s worldwide “Start Something New” ad campaign resembles his artwork.

“Romero Britto is a peace-loving guy,” said his attorney Robert Zarco. “He is not one to file lawsuits, but he is being professionally abused. He needs to defend his property and honor.”

The 29-page suit, filed April 6 on behalf of Miami Beach-based Britto Central Inc., claims that the central image in Apple’s campaign infringes on Britto’s “trade dress” and creates unfair competition.

Named in the suit: Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., and the design firm that created the campaign, Karl Maier, Ltd., composed of Craig Redman of New York and Karl Maier of London.

“They are basically copying Britto’s art and benefiting from it,” said Zarco, who said he first saw the campaign in an Apple store in China and thought the work was Britto’s.

Apple declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday.

In the suit, Zarco asks U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams to force the company to stop using the offending image immediately. Zarco is also seeking “millions of dollars” in punitive damages, lawyers’ fees and the money Britto would have been paid for creating the image in the first place.

Apple launched its “Start Something New” campaign in the new year and includes images that were entirely “created on an Apple product,” according to the company’s website.

“Every brushstroke, every pixel and every frame of film was brought to life by talented Apple users from around the world,” the website boasts.

The offending image from the campaign features an outstretched hand outlined in black lines and filled in with brilliantly colored polka dots, stripes and crosshatches, among other patterns. It’s mounted on a yellow, banner-type background.

The design firm’s website says that Redman and Maier collaborate daily on “bold work that is filled with simple messages executed in a thoughtful and humorous way.”

Zarco said their work mimics Britto’s. In fact, the suit has pages and pages of Britto’s artwork vs. the artwork of Redman and Maier. Side by side: Peace signs, shoes, flowers, faces, even Mickey Mouse.

“Craig & Karl have been illegally misappropriating the Britto Trade Dress and using it to obtain jobs and advance their own careers by illegally trading upon the consumer affection and immeasurable goodwill built by Mr. Britto’s decades of tireless work, promotion, and investment,” the lawsuit contends.

Britto, 51, who was born in Brazil, grew up poor and credits a lucky break in 1989 for launching his career. Britto’s signature colors and shapes are ubiquitous, plastering luggage, baby carriers, shoes, key chains, espresso cups, paperweights and pet collars. Britto also has licensing deals with Disney, Coca-Cola, Mattel and the FIFA soccer organization.

When the campaign popped up at the Apple Store on Lincoln Road, about a block from Britto’s gallery, Britto became concerned.

“Mr. Britto is much more than a mere visual artist,” the suit says. “His distinctive and iconic imagery has evolved into a bona fide lifestyle brand of immense value.”

U.S. copyright law “protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” Artistic works include artwork, intellectual property lawyers say.

Copyright falls under the broader category of intellectual property, which also includes trademark, patents and branding, said attorney Leslie Lott, whose Coral Gables firm, Lott & Fischer, specializes in intellectual property.

When it comes to copyright, Lott said the question is going to be whether the artist had access to Britto’s work and whether the similarities are substantial. Lott said the challenge in this case is proving that Britto has created a distinctive style.

“The ultimate question is going to be, ‘Is it likely to confuse or deceive the public?’” Lott said. “So if you or I see this design, are we going to think, ‘Oh that’s Britto?’”

When it comes to art, she said it’s always difficult.

“It’s not easy for artists to protect a specific style, but if an artist has a unique and distinctive style, he has to protect it because it won’t be unique for long if they don’t.”

For Zarco, taking on the $200 billion Apple was necessary to protect all of Britto’s hard work.

“It’s rare to have someone fighting a company like that,” he said. “But we are not going to tolerate being bullied by someone trying to take advantage of him.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.