Lessons in Christmas decorations

Let it snow…
December 14, 2017
No strings attached – yet
April 25, 2018

In line with the 12 days of Christmas, decorations should come down on (or by) the 6th of January.

In a fascinating legal ruling where Christmas decorations and public art clashed, the court ordered the de-ribboning of Snow geese by the 6th of December.

Michael Snow is a highly distinguished Canadian artist. His 1979 work “Flight Stop”, made up of 60 fibreglass geese forms, adorns the busy Eaton Centre shopping mall.

Michael Snow’s “Flight Stop”, 1979

In 1982 the marketing department of the Eaton Centre decided it would attach large red ribbons to the necks of the geese, and use this image as part of the Centre’s Christmas branding on shopping bags, posters, and banners.

While it was perceived that it might bring joy to the shoppers, in reality it brought no joy to the artist Michael Snow. He felt that the artwork’s basic character and purpose had been altered (distorted, modified, mutilated!), and ultimately his artistic reputation had been affected.

The marketing boffins had not consulted Snow, they defended their position (having spent a large sum on promotions, and probably sitting in offices with stacked boxes of printed material with ribbon-necked geese!!) strenuously saying they felt they ought to exploit all aspects of the Centre for commercial opportunity, and also argued that the work was there for all to “enjoy”.

Not bullied by the smooth talking marketing and public relations “decorators”, Snow took the argument to court and filed for ribbon removal. The case is studied in law today, and is important for those focusing on copyright.

(Snow v The Eaton Centre Ltd. (1982) 70 C.P.R. (2d) 105) note that Snow
“…[was] adamant in his belief that his naturalistic composition has been made to look ridiculous by the addition of ribbons and suggests [that] it is not unlike dangling earrings from the Venus de Milo”.

The judge found in favour of the artist, that the decorations did “distort or modify”, and was satisfied by the artist’s own perception (as supported by testimony from credible members of the public or the art community) that his honour or reputation had been affected.

Snow didn’t want to interfere with the advertising campaign, leaving the Eaton Centre free to use and distribute their boxes of shopping bags and posters. He simply wanted the removal of kitschy ribbons from his art works.

Since this case, the Copyright Act in Canada has been amended so that any modification to a painting, sculpture or engraving is deemed to prejudice the author.

36 years later, one wonders if the decorators in the neighbouring Hudson’s Bay department store knew of this tale. Featured in their decorations were models of Canadian geese, sporting (you guessed it) red ribbons! As these geese were not works of art we can assume that the ribbons (and geese) will disappear, along with the other Christmas decorations, on January 6th.

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