For years the South By Southwest festival in Austin has been criticized as nothing more than a vast pop culture-infused marketing platform for major brands with little monetary benefits for the musicians who are the original core of the springtime mega-event.
Now, Austin’s visual artists and designers are finding themselves the victims of SXSW’s over-commercialization.
An East Austin arts group has filed a lawsuit against the Mars candy company along with two marketing agencies, alleging its original designs were used without permission and compensation for room-sized installations intended to promote Mars products at SXSW.
The Museum of Human Achievement is suing the Mars Wrigley Confectionary corporation along with Colorado-based Integer Group and California-based Collide, both marketing agencies.
In a complaint filed March 29 in U.S. District Court, MOHA alleges that Collide used at least eight of its designs for large installations that were part of the “Collide on Rainey” event. The color-saturated installations — including a houseful of color-themed rooms mimicking the palette of M&M’s — were designed to promote Mars products M&M’s, Twix and Maltesers.
MOHA charges the defendants with copyright infringement, including removal of MOHA’s copyright information from the design renderings and then covertly using them. The complaint asks for a financial award.
Producers and presenters of adventurous, multi-media artistic programming, the non-profit MOHA — whose annual budget is less than $150,000 — operates out of a warehouse in East Austin, charging little or no admission for its many events and exhibits.
Led by executive director Zac Traeger, MOHA charges in the complaint that its artists spent “hundreds of hours creating concepts, renderings, site plans and budgets for a series of art installations to be used during the SXSW festival to promote the iconic Mars confectionary brand.”
“After months of work — and with designs and budgets nearly complete — MOHA was sent packing without pay while the defendants covertly used its artistic renderings and other deliverables to construct and execute the installations,” the complaint reads.
Renderings and photos accompanying the complaint show the conspicuous similarities between what MOHA designed and the installations that were built for “Collide on Rainey.”
Traeger would not comment on the lawsuit directly, though in a statement said, “We are being bullied by a company who profited from our creative output.”
Austin attorney Buck McKinney, who is representing MOHA, said: “We believe it’s a strong case and we hope they step up and do the right thing. If they don’t we’ll take it up in court.”
A representative from the Mars corporation declined to comment.
Collide founder Alan Miller and company representatives did not respond to several requests for comment.
In October 2017, according to the complaint, Collide approached Traeger and MOHA asking for ideas for a series of installations for “Collide on Rainey.” Over the next several months Traeger and other MOHA artists produced dozens of original graphics and renderings, sending the work to the Integer Group at the direction of Collide.
MOHA requested a written contract for the project from Collide nine times but no contract was delivered, the complaint says. After disputes over the project’s budget — and with just weeks to go before SXSW — Collide informed MOHA that it no longer intended to use the organization’s designs and demanded the return of a $25,000 progress payment.
The complaint also alleges that Collide removed MOHA’s logo from the design materials and covertly continued to use them, a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Since 2015 Collide has staged its Rainey Street event promoting brands including StubHub, Showtime, Dr. Martens, Taco Bell and others.
In a 2017 interview with Forbes magazine, Miller discussed his marketing strategy of “brand integration” as a way of “weaving brands into culture in meaningful ways” and building “brand activations” at events like SXSW.
“Brands have money that can do incredible good. So let’s go in and support artists and artistry,” Miller said.
In 2017 Collide collaborated with Bridget Dunlap — owner of multiple bars on Rainey Street — to open CollideATX, a concept-driven restaurant/bar cum co-working and event space on East Sixth Street that was also a platform for brand marketing. It closed in February of this year.