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Mercedes Benz USA LLC v. Lewis

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

September 11, 2019

MERCEDES BENZ, USA, LLC., Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES LEWIS, JEFF SOTO and MAXX GRAMAJO, DANIEL BOMBARDIER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          AVERN COHN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         These are declaratory judgment actions arising out of alleged copyright infringement violations. Plaintiff Mercedes Benz USA, LLC (Mercedes) filed three (3) declaratory judgment actions in this district against defendants who are artists and represented by the same counsel.[1] In broad terms, Mercedes obtained a permit to photograph various locations in downtown Detroit in conjunction with advertising one of its vehicles. Mercedes posted six (6) of the photographs on Instagram which depict in whole or in part murals painted on public buildings in Detroit by defendants. Defendants, through counsel, sent letters to Mercedes contending that the use of defendants' murals violates copyright law. Mercedes responded by seeking declaratory relief.

         Defendants are: James Lewis (Lewis), Daniel Bombardier (Bombardier), Jeff Soto (Soto) and Maxx Gramajo (Gramajo).

         Before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by each defendant, as follows:

         Bombardier's motion to dismiss, Doc. 12 in No. 19-10951

         All of the defendants argue that the declaratory judgment complaints fail to state a claim because (1) the case is not ripe as defendants have not registered copyrights, (2) Mercedes has failed to state a claim under the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (AWCPA), 17 U.S.C. § 120(a). Soto and Gramajo also argue that the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over them.

         For the reasons that follow, the motions will be denied. As will be explained, Mercedes has alleged a plausible claim for declaratory relief against defendants and the Court has personal jurisdiction over all of the defendants.

         II. Background

         A. General

         Mercedes sells and distributes vehicles, including the G 500 Series vehicle (the “G 500”). In January 2018, Mercedes attended the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, to unveil the G 500, then its newest model luxury SUV. During that time, Mercedes obtained a permit from the City of Detroit to photograph the G 500 in specific downtown areas. The permit authorized Mercedes to photograph its G 500 in several locations, including the area between the Eastern Market and 1314 Gratiot Avenue, where defendants' murals are located

         Mercedes commissioned photographs of its G 500 throughout the city of Detroit. On January 26, 2018, Mercedes posted six of those photos on an Instagram account, @mercedesbenz.

         1. Lewis

         As to Lewis, among the photos Mercedes posted was a picture depicting the G 500 driving near 2001 Wilkins Street. The photo partially depicted Lewis' mural in the background. The post stated, “[t]his off-road legend is always ready for some urban exploration to mix things up” and was designed to highlight the G 500's versatility.

         Lewis created the Mural in 2016 during the second year of the now annual art festival, Murals in the Market. The festival aims to revitalize the Eastern Market district of Detroit and turn it “into a must-see destination for arts, as well as food….” Complaint at ¶¶ 42-43, 45. Lewis' mural was painted on the façade of a building, was integrated into that building, and became a permanent fixture of the Eastern Market's cityscape.

         2. Bombardier

         Another photo Mercedes posted was a picture of the G 500 driving in front of Mike's Coney Island Restaurant. The photo partially depicted Bombardier's mural in the background. The post stated “[t]his off-road legend is always ready for some urban exploration to mix things up” and was designed to highlight the G 500's versatility.

         Bombardier created the mural in 2017 during the third year of the Murals in the Market. The mural was painted on the side of façade of a building, was integrated into that building, and became a permanent fixture of the Eastern Market's cityscape.

         3. Soto and Gramajo

         Another photo Mercedes posted was a picture depicting the G 500 driving in front of the Gratiot Central Market. The photo partially depicted a mural painted by Soto and Gramajo in the background. Again, the post stated: “[t]his off-road legend is always ready for some urban exploration to mix things up” and was designed to highlight the G 500's versatility.

         Soto and Gramajo created the mural in 2015 during the first year of the Murals in the Market. The mural was painted on the side of façade of a market building, was integrated into that building, and ...


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