MTA Goes After East Village Artist for Painting on Used Metrocards [Updated]


The big bad wolf is hungry. Or jealous? EV Grieve today alerted us to the matter of East Village artist VH McKenzie, who has been creating oil paintings on discarded Metrocards that she then sells on Etsy for $48 apiece. The MTA found out about this, and sent her the following letter telling her that she needs a license in order to make art on the back of used, old Metrocards.

“While we at the MTA are flattered that you recognize the value of our brand to consumers, please understand the MTA has a well-established product licensing program which markets authorized versions of such products. While we have no record of your firm requesting or being granted such authorization, we are prepared to initiate discussions with you about acquiring a license from us.

The MTA’s intellectual property is protected by applicable copyright law and trademark law. The manner in which your web site markets these items, such as your reference to New York City subway, implies involvement and/or endorsement of your business and products by the MTA.

The MTA considers its intellectual property to be a valuable asset which we protect from dilution and confusion in the marketplace. The MTA obtained and maintains its registered trademarks, copyrights and intellectual property in the public interest. It is important for the MTA to be able to communicate with the public about its services, as well as operate its established licensed products program, without unauthorized users of its intellectual property creating confusion.

Please reply to me by email or in writing to acknowledge receipt of this notice, and to indicate your intention to remove this item from Etsy and cease any sales of the item…

Ouch. Of course, plenty of people make art on Metrocards. There’s the bench we wrote about yesterday, and a full-scale gallery of art on cards, among other offerings. Why are these particular cards (and this particular artist) being targeted? We’ve contacted Mark Heavey, Chief of Marketing & Advertising at the MTA, to get their side of the story, and will update when we hear back.

In the meantime, the artist told EV Grieve that she’s changed her Etsy site, removing the “before” image of the cards and including this paragraph of legalese at the end of each listing.

Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the State or City of New York, or any related or affiliated governmental or pseudo-governmental agency or authority. The views and opinions of the artist expressed herein or in the artist’s works displayed or sold herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the State or City of New York, or any related or affiliated governmental or pseudo-governmental agency or authority.

She has no plans to pay the MTA a large sum of money for a license.

UPDATE: Mark R. Heavey from the MTA got back to us with this:

This artist is selling the artwork on as a MetroCard, which is an MTA trademarked brand. Imagine if an artist decorated copies of the Village Voice and sold these as The Village Voice . . . I suspect the attorneys at Village Voice Media LLC would have an issue with that. If other artists are doing this for profit, it is not with the MTA’s tacit agreement; it’s just that we don’t know about it. Whenever we find someone profiting from use of our trademarks, we must strictly enforce and protect our trademark rights. As a public entity, this is our obligation. And the issue is not the size of the infringer (individual or corporation), but the principle. Note that whenever we find an infringement, we do politely offer the opportunity to discuss a license agreement. The licensing industry standard is 10% of net sales, which is a small price to pay for the ability to market the products as “Officially Licensed by MTA” and the potential to sell the product through the MTA’s own stores.

Mark R. Heavey
Chief of Marketing & Advertising
Marketing and Corporate Communications

The artist, for her part, says she’s removed all mention of MTA from her listings. Of course, at the end of the day, even if the MTA has legal standing…is this really the best PR move? We’ll continue to follow this story.

Is this East Village artist a threat to the sanctity of the MTA’s intellectual property? [EV Grieve]

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2011

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