There's a pair of arcs that most stories involving intellectual property, big companies and artists fall into: in the first, said individual or business uses a trademark or copyright of a big brand in a way that the brand's parent company can't abide, the corporate behemoth lurches into action and pursues legal remedy against the perceived injury, and the case is more often than not adjudicated in favor of the august multinational conglomerate — a David and Goliath in reverse, minus the slingshot and the beheading. (The beheading always gets left out in the metaphor, understandably.)
Conversely, we see those giant corporations use the work of artists without license or leave, with those of us holding cynical views about big business in America believing that the corporations believed that they could simply do as they please without fear of consequence or repercussion, even as it's impossible to impugn motive from such a far remove. The recent case of Mercedes-Benz and local artists in Detroit falls mostly into the latter category of cases, even as it appears to trod upon lightly-traveled legal grounds.
Mercedez-Bens is taking four artists to court in the hopes of having the artists' works, murals drawn on buildings in Detroit that were featured in a series of Instagram ads for the luxury carmaker, declared fair use. Mercedez-Benz took the case to court after receiving letters from the artists in response to the ads. Now, the company is looking to make the argument that the photos, and the ads derived from them, are protected by the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act, which states that copyright protection for buildings goes only so far as their functional design. As the Hollywood Reporter piece notes, it's a strategy that has been pursued before, albeit never to a successful outcome.
If nothing else, Mercedes can be applauded for making such a bold argument in their defense, even if it doesn't seem to hew too closely to the precepts of logic or reality to the outside observer. The twin arguments that the art is now part of the building, and that the art is in itself functional by virtue of its commission as part of an effort to promote Detroit, might ultimately hold legal weight in the separate reality that is the American legal system. But Mercedes should have the good sense to see that a public fight over a series of ads that would seek to both invoke Detroit's reputation as the car capital of the United States and imply an affinity or affection for the city, while stiffing local artists in a city that is working to get back on its feet, is a bad look. Surely they can move a few more units to the well-off in order to affect a settlement, lest their love of Motown appear little more than lip service.