The disputed IP of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Met Gala dress
The annual Met Gala is a signature fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. Celebrities who attend always dress to impress, and this year, one of the most talked-about outfits was worn by politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Popularly known as AOC, she is the U.S. Representative for New York's 14th congressional district, and made her debut at the Met Gala in a white dress that had the statement “Tax the Rich” emblazoned across the back.
On her Instagram page, Ocasio-Cortez amplified the message of her dress by writing: “The time is now for childcare, healthcare, and climate action for all. Tax the Rich.” In the same post, she also gave a shoutout to the brand Brother Vellies that had made the dress, and its designer Aurora James.
While it was inevitable that the content of her political message would ruffle feathers, what was surprising was that the provenance of the design itself soon became a matter of controversy as well. The Velvet Bandit, a self-described “street artist, mom and lunch lady”, soon spoke up on her own Instagram account, highlighting striking similarities between the Brother Vellies dress and her own work. For instance, while she acknowledged that she doesn’t own the phrase “tax the rich”, the artist noted that the phrase on the dress is rendered in a colour and font that is very close to her presentation of the phrase in her artwork.
From a legal perspective, street art (The Velvet Bandit’s medium) is created on public spaces, often without legal permission, and thus requires the artist to remain anonymous. As such, as this American Bar Association article puts it: “It is unclear whether current U.S. intellectual property (IP) law protects unsanctioned street art from unauthorized copying, removal, sale, or destruction of the work… As illegality and anonymity are integral components of graffiti, the majority of street art fits into the category of unsanctioned art, consequently falling into the ‘negative space’ of IP law.”
That said, since there is a clear timeline of documentation on social media, there is a good chance of The Velvet Bandit at least winning her case in the court of public opinion. After all, it’s not exactly a good look for Ocasio-Cortez to be championing the rights of the working class when she is using the work of a blue-collar artist without permission and credit, intentionally or otherwise.
Luckily for the politician, The Velvet Bandit is “doesn’t want to sue. She’s not even mad”, according to an article in The Press Democrat. What she would love, says the artist, is acknowledgement and a collaboration with Ocasio-Cortez and Aurora James. As she wrote on her Instagram page: “They need a female street artist working on their team, dontcha think? It would be an honor. Obviously they have fabulous taste.”
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