For 15 years, San Francisco resident Sirron Norris has prided himself on creating murals across The City that inform people from all walks of life about the cultural relevance of neighborhoods.
Corporations such as Mitsubishi, Sony and Ricoh Theta have paid Norris to use his murals for commercial purposes. So when the artist received a calendar in the mail in December 2012 from Zephyr Real Estate — the largest independent real estate firm in The City — with his “El Toreador Mural” in West Portal printed alongside a home the firm sold there, he said it was a “complete surprise” and “abuse of my talents.”
In Norris’ mind, Zephyr was using his work, along with that of seven other muralists, to show that the firm and its business of selling homes in San Francisco — one of the country’s most expensive places to live — were accepted by the artists. Not only were portions of their murals published in the 2013 calendar without permission, which is copyright infringement, but so were their websites. The 41-year-old Norris — whose murals include “Victorion: El Defensor de la Mission” in the Mission depicting Victorian houses forming a robot to battle a developer and gentrification — said he was offended by what the juxtaposition might suggest to the public.
“My reputation was on the line,” he said, adding that helping to sell multimillion-dollar homes is “not an act I wanted attached to my name or brand.”
Deciding to handle the matter delicately, Norris contacted Zephyr immediately, received verbal acknowledgement of the copyright infringement and in January 2013 sought legal help with 50 Balmy Law. The law firm, located at Balmy Alley in the Mission where another mural was used for the calendar, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Zephyr in May 2013 and demanded that remaining calendars be forfeited, which Zephyr did last March. Zephyr President Randall Kostick said he did not offer compensation to Norris, but apologized and did not hear back for more than six months.
Then on Jan. 6, Norris and seven other artists filed a complaint against Zephyr alleging copyright infringement, false endorsement and misappropriation of right of publicity.
“The fundamental principal of copyright is an artist gets to decide how their creative work is used and what it stands for,” said Brooke Oliver, an attorney and CEO of 50 Balmy Law. “Murals are not free for the taking for someone to give as a gift as a promotional item.”
Besides compensation for damages yet to be determined, the federal lawsuit demands that Zephyr reveal how much the real estate firm earned from using the murals.
Zephyr gave the 2013 calendars mostly to clients who already purchased homes, Kostick said, and the houses printed alongside the murals were already sold. The real estate firm, which was established in 1978 and operates five offices citywide, sold nearly $1.8 billion in real estate in 2013, which was an increase from the prior year but consistent with the rise in market value, he said.
Kostick added that he is saddened that some longtime residents have been displaced due to the now-yearslong housing crisis in The City and that it is difficult for Zephyr to help public servants such as nurses, doctors and police officers find homes they can afford to buy.
“I’m flattered that a real estate brokerage is so influential that we can control the course of gentrification in San Francisco, but it’s just misplaced in my opinion,” he said. “I think you could point the finger at lots of enterprises like restaurants, convenience stores or coffee shops.”
As for the artists’ anguish over unwittingly contributing to The City’s desirability with their murals, Kostick said it is one of multiple things that come with economic upturns.
“Although it makes it difficult for artists to afford to live in San Francisco, it certainly makes their art more valuable,” he said.
Another plaintiff in the case, Mona Caron, created “Duboce Bikeway Mural” in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood where she has lived for nine years. Caron said she was stunned by what she called Zephyr’s blindness to the irony of the situation. Anyone on the fence about buying a home that could contribute to gentrification might do so after seeing the calendar, she said, and more of her longtime neighbors might move.
“I am a renter myself, and every time a house gets flipped, about a dozen, on average, people will leave town,” Caron said. “I’ve experienced complete erosion of my community. It feels damn lonely in this town these days.”