Victoria’s “More Peace, More Justice” Mural and the ACAB Controversy: Who Was “Morally Right”?

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Victoria’s “More Peace, More Justice” Mural and the ACAB Controversy: Who Was “Morally Right”?

ICYMI, texting has brought many new terms into the English language. IMHO, there is a whole new language developing which, LOL, may leave the uninitiated grasping for the meaning of text abbreviations which, to others, is obvious. BTW, you might be wondering what all this has to do with copyright, but if you stay tuned you will find out. It all has to do with an acronym, ACAB, hidden in the design of a piece of street art commissioned from a group of 17 artists by the City of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, as part of its commitment to fight systemic racism. Entitled “More Peace, More Justice”, the work was painted on the pavement at Bastion Square, in the heart of the “old town” part of the city. It celebrates BLM and BIPOC groups and was organized through the African Heritage Association of Vancouver Island. The ACAB acrostic was buried in the letter “S” in the word “Justice”.

If any of these shorthand expressions are unknown to you, you can look them up. You might find that ACAB might stand for “Always Carry A Bible”, but the more common usage today is used to describe the attitudes of certain groups toward law enforcement. It is commonly rendered as “All Cops are Bad” or, more pejoratively “All Cops are Bastards”.  It turns out that this is not a new acronym, although I have to confess that I had not heard of it before. (Maybe this says something about the cocoon I apparently live in). Until recently, if I’d seen someone with an ACAB tattoo on their arm, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to its meaning. ACAB is reported to have originated in the UK in the 1920s. It became popular in punk rock circles in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently has become quite widespread during anti-racism protests.

What started out as a gesture of reconciliation by the City of Victoria to reach out to marginalized groups ended up being highly controversial and splitting the community as a result of the “secret” insertion of ACAB in the street mural. When the offensive lettering was pointed out, Chief Constable Del Manak of the Victoria Police objected, calling the inclusion of the acronym disrespectful and offensive, and City Council voted to paint over the letters. Although the sponsoring organization said it did not condone the secret message, a number of the artists staged a sit in to block the City’s action. As a result, city officials backed down and instead engaged in discussions and negotiations with the artists. The final outcome, which in the eyes of Chief Manak was just as offensive, if not more so, blanked out the letter “S” and in its place inserted;

“This letter has been censored by the City of Victoria influenced by the Victoria Police Department. In doing so, Victoria is contributing to the silencing of Black and Indigenous voices and experiences across this land”.

A compromise of sorts, I guess, but certainly not one to calm troubled waters. I am going to stay away from the substance of whether or not the artists were justified in including the anti-police message in their mural, but suffice to say they got plenty of attention—lots of it unfavourable. A number of irate citizens weighed in, including one who decided to spray-paint over the revised wording. Some pointed out that since the City had commissioned the work, it had the right to amend it without negotiating with the artists. One local artist wrote to Victoria’s daily paper, the Times-Colonist;

“I have sold a number of pieces of both my own and commissioned work. I could not imagine incorporating a political message of my belief into a piece of commissioned work, without the knowledge of the purchaser. It would be unprofessional, as well as morally unethical”.

No arguments there. But then he continues;

I was angered to read that the artists responsible for the work were involved in “weeks of negotiations with the city” as to how to deal with the offensive acronym…I have been fortunate enough to purchase a few pieces of original art in my lifetime. Since I bought and paid for them, they belong to me. I can do whatever I wish with them…Since the city owns this installation, the city should not really have to consult with anyone as to what happens with the piece.”

Hmmm. Hold on a sec. I’m not so sure about that. As much as it may sound logical that if you own it, you can do whatever you want with it, in the case of art the situation is not so clear. First, Canada no longer follows the “work for hire” doctrine (applicable in the US) so just because a work is commissioned, that does not mean that the purchaser owns the copyright. It is retained by the artist, and in this case the copyright is presumably held by the two artists who painted the letter “S”, or perhaps collectively by the entire group of 17 artists. And if they hold the copyright, they can exercise their “moral rights” to prevent unauthorized alteration of their work.

What are moral rights, especially in a Canadian context?  The Berne Convention, the international treaty that regulates copyright and to which Canada has been a party since 1928 (actually since 1887 as part of the British Empire but since April 10, 1928 in its own right), has this to say about moral rights, in Article 6bis;

“(1) Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”

In Canada, the right to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification is known as the “right of integrity”. According to well-known copyright lawyer, educator and blogger, Leslie Ellen Harris, writing on the website LawNow;

“The right of integrity is the right of the author to object to any changes of his work that may harm his reputation as an author. This harm would be a question of fact that would have to be determined in court through the testimony of witnesses. For example, painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa (if the Mona Lisa was still protected by copyright) would likely be a violation of Da Vinci’s moral rights”.

The best known moral rights case in Canada involved the artist Michael Snow. Snow’s work Flight Stop, a representation of sixty geese, hangs in the main galleria of the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto. Commissioned by the Centre’s developers in 1979, in 1982 the geese became entangled in a legal controversy over Snow’s moral rights. Just before Christmas of that year, the management of the Centre decided to bedeck Snow’s geese with red ribbons and use photos of the bedecked geese on promotional items. Snow objected, claiming that the addition of the ribbons altered the character and purpose of the work and negatively affected his artistic reputation. Mall management disagreed, and the case went to the Ontario High Court (Snow v Eaton Centre Ltd), which ruled in Snow’s favour. The Eaton Centre was given three days to remove the ribbons, which they did. Snow had made his point and asserted his moral rights.

Now to return to the “More Peace, More Justice” street mural in Victoria, and its hidden ACAB message. It seems to me that the City of Victoria was wise to have entered into discussions with the artists rather than peremptorily disfiguring the work, no matter how noble it felt its cause was. Perhaps the Council actually took some legal advice on the matter?  Maybe a group of 17 young artists would not have had the staying power to take the City to court, but who knows? A rich benefactor may have stepped up. It would have been very messy, although the “compromise” that was worked out was not so clean either.

Anyway, I hate to disappoint our local Victoria artist who seemed to think that an owner or collector can do whatever he or she wants with a piece of purchased art. It ain’t so. So I conclude that in the end, as unsatisfactory as the outcome may have been to a number of people, the City of Victoria did the right thing by negotiating and coming to a compromise solution agreed to by the artists. 

By way of conclusion, let me add one more acronym to the alphabet soup I have dropped into this blog. WIPO. The World Intellectual Property Organization, the international body that administers the Berne Convention and other intellectual property (IP) treaties. Who would have thought that in the end WIPO would probably have protected the right of a group of street artists to insert ACAB into a piece of commissioned street art?

Well folks. I have to run. TTFN.

© Hugh Stephens 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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