Deborah Roberts, a well-known collage artist based in Austin, Texas, is suing artist Lynthia Edwards, who is based in Birmingham, Alabama, and her Brooklyn gallery, Richard Beavers Gallery, as well as the gallery's owner Richard Beavers, for copyright infringement. Roberts has alleged that Edwards deliberately copied Roberts's artistic style to create work that would confuse potential buyers.
In the complaint, Roberts alleges that Edwards and her gallery engaged in "willful copyright infringement" related to the "unauthorized preparation, reproduction, public display, advertising, and public distribution of collages that are copied from and substantially and confusingly similar to several series of original Deborah Roberts collages."
Roberts filed the complaint in August in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, based on where Richard Beavers Gallery does business. Luke Nikas, the attorney for the defendants, filed a letter with Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall on September 22, notifying the court of its intention to file a motion to dismiss the suit, which Nikas described as "suffer[ing] from numerous legal deficiencies" in the letter.
In addition to seeking injunctive relief and damages in excess of $1 million, Roberts is also seeking that all works by Edwards (referred to in the suit at the "Infringing Collages") be impounded and subsequently destroyed by the courts.
In a statement, Roberts' attorney, Robert W. Clarida, said, "Deborah Roberts is undertaking a legal case regarding copyright infringement and related claims against Lynthia Edwards, Richard Beavers and Richard Beavers Gallery. This is now a matter for the US judicial system to determine."
Nikas, Edwards' attorney, described the case as an attempt to prevent "Lynthia Edwards from thriving in the same artistic space and same artistic tradition as Roberts."
"[Edwards] has created all of the artwork that's at issue in this case based on her own original aesthetic decisions," Nikas told ARTnews Thursday. "Roberts has not accused her of copying any of her specific works. The essence of the case is that Roberts is complaining that Edwards is working in the same artistic tradition. That is not a viable legal theory. It is a successful artist trying to cram down an up-and-coming artist whom she perceives as a threat to her marketplace."
He added, "That is an abuse of the litigation process. It's really unconscionable."
Nikas said that he plans to file a separate lawsuit on behalf of his clients against Roberts and her galleries "to hold them accountable for what they've done," regarding "false statements" made about Edwards and her work. "There's been a consistent and despicable effort on Roberts's part to prevent Lynthia from becoming successful in this space, and it's interfered with Edwards's relationships with other galleries and collectors," he said.
Roberts' galleries, Stephen Friedman Gallery in London and Vielmetter in Los Angeles, did not respond to ARTnews's request for comment.
Roberts's art has become well-known over the past several years for its use of collaged images, in which eyes, noses, and other body parts from found images are arranged into scenes that show Black children, often against a stark white background. To those photographic elements, Roberts will often add in textiles and fabrics as well as painting certain sections of the canvas by hand.
Her art has been exhibited widely, with it being included in major group shows like the widely acclaimed 2021 exhibition "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and 2017's "Fictions" at the Studio Museum in Harlem. This year, her work was the subject of a two-venue solo show in Los Angeles at Art + Practice and the California African American Museum, and is to be explored in a two-person show, alongside Benny Andrews, at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. Also this year, New York magazine commissioned Roberts to create a collaged portrait of Travyon Martin for a cover story on the 10th anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement.
According to the complaint, Beavers contacted Roberts in April 2020 to inquire as to whether Roberts would sell her work through his gallery, allegedly writing "so many of my clients have you on their wishlist of artists whose work they would like to acquire for their collections." Roberts says in the complaint she declined the offer.
The complaint continues, "Upon information and belief, Defendants found that the more the Edwards collages resembled the Roberts Collages, the more successful the Edwards collages became with purchasers," adding that the defendants "have aggressively marketed such collages, including by promoting them at one or more high-profile national art fairs at which Ms. Roberts has also promoted and sold" her collages, including Expo Chicago and Unlimited Art Miami Beach.
In Nikas' letter to the court, he cites a 2015 District Court case, McDonald v. West, writing that "Roberts's copyright claim … must fail because 'copyright does not protect styles,' concepts, ideas, or artistic traditions." Nikas further told ARTnews that copyright laws are intended to "encourage people to create work and give them the ownership rights of what they create but not to create such a stringent ownership regime that stifles innovation."
Included in Roberts' complaint are three examples of people who had messaged Roberts who had mistaken Edwards' work to be by Roberts, as well as an exhibit showing several side-by-side comparisons of work by both artists.
"What the side-by-side comparisons prove," Nikas said, "is that Edwards did not copy Roberts's works. Those side-by-side comparisons prove only that they are working in the same artistic tradition."
The complaint also cites an article by Angela N Carroll, titled "Ethics and Controversy: Reviewing Appropriation in Black Art" and published by Sugarcane Magazine earlier this year in which Erica Moiah James, a professor of African, Black, and Caribbean art at the University of Miami, is quoted as saying, "The Deborah Roberts shadow play was perhaps the most disturbing and disturbingly obvious. There was absolutely no effort to transform. The boldness of the maker and the gallery [Edwards and Richard Beavers Gallery, respectively] to share that work in that space was stunning."
In a statement published in the Sugarcane article, Roberts said, "In no way shape or form would I ever prevent any artist, especially artists of color, from making a living, because this is a very tough profession. My track record with helping young artists develop their skills and their own voice is easily researchable. What I object to is someone creating work knowing that it is being mistaken as mine and using that for profit. This is not about competition; it's about having integrity."
In the letter to the court, Nikas noted that both Roberts and Edwards draw from a long tradition of collage, which has a historical importance for Black artists, drawing a historical lineage from Picasso's use of collage in creating Synthetic Cubism to artists like Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Benny Andrews.
"It is extremely rare for an artist to sue another artist, claiming infringement because they're working in the same general artistic style, and that's because every artist making art in a particular field is building on the work that came before," Nikas said in an interview. "The way the law works is if you are copying someone else's work, you've taken their work, you've copied it, you've put it in your own, and you have done nothing else to materially alter, transform it, then you start looking at copyright infringement."
To further make his point on behalf of his clients, Nikas offered a hypothetical art historical comparison as an example. "It's like saying that Robert Motherwell's ‘Spanish Elegy' series infringes upon Franz Kline's Abstract Expressionist works because they both use black linear patterns against a stark contrast background in the style of Abstract Expressionism. That is not the law—it has never been the law."
Nikas added, "Deborah Roberts does not own the photo collage tradition that she's working in. She didn't invent it. She has absolutely no legal rights to it. She doesn't own a monopoly on photo collage. It was developed by a group of artists over the last century, that she was not a part of. To sue someone for working in the same artistic tradition that you are, when you have absolutely no ownership rights of that tradition, is a frivolous claim."