If you put the face of Frida Kahlo on anything and sell it, you will make money. The issue with the iconic Mexican artist’s image isn’t whether she’s bankable or not, it’s about who has the right to use her face and profit off of it. The legal tension between the Frida Kahlo Corporation and Frida Kahlo estate has been strained for years, and that tension is trickling down to independent artists. At least one indie artist is saying enough is enough.
Cris Melo, a California-based artist, is taking the Frida Kahlo Corporation to court because she is tired of being harassed. The Frida Kahlo Corporation (FKC) has been targeting her, and other indie artists, issuing legal notices for them to take down their Frida products.
“We have been selling Frida all these years with no problem,” Melo said in an interview with KQED. “And now they want us to pay them to sell Fridas. This is our work. We don’t have to.”
Among Melo’s claims is that her whimsical artwork does not infringe on FKC’s copyright trademark. It will be interesting to see how the federal court rules on this matter because it won’t just affect Melo, but other independent artists that use celebrity images in their artworks. We’ve already seen how celebs such as Beyonce and Taylor Swift have gone after indie artists who have profited off their likeliness. But what makes this case a bit more interesting is that FKC already has legal matters with the Frida Kahlo estate over the same problem.
The Frida Kahlo image issue seemed to come head-to-head after Mattel produced a Frida Barbie doll in 2018. That is when the Frida estate and FKC battled it out in court. What seems to be the heart of the issue is how many Frida products will FKC agree too? Would Frida approve of her face being plastered over random products? Mexico courts sided with the family, but that doesn’t mean the battle over Frida’s image is over. Where does that leave independent artists?
“These are my images from my imagination,” Melo said. “I’m painting a public figure. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
Jennifer Rothman, professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles told KQED that Melo’s case against FKC will determine what rights the public has over celebrities. We should mention this is not the first independent artist that has sued FKC on the same grounds.
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This is a detail of a large painting that I left at mom's house when I moved to California. The banner over her head is not visible but it's yellow and in black letters, it says "Viva La Vida". #freefrida #canvas #artistsoninstagram #fridakahlo #frida #kahlo #portrait #mexico #meloearth #crismelo
“I think one of the most important issues raised by this case is a general trend towards trying to commercialize and own famous people and historical public figures,” Jennifer Rothman said. “And that raises some very complicated questions about what limits there are on the public’s ability to engage with these people, as well as for artists to refer to them.”
We will definitely be tuned in to see how this case develops in court.