Frederick Hart is a renowned sculptor, most famous for his "Three Soldiers" bronze statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In 1974, Hart won an international competition to design the facade for the west entrance of the Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral is the world's sixth-largest Gothic-style cathedral and attracts a million visitors a year. As a result Hart spent 13 painstaking years delving into the roots of religion and philosophy, probing the very nature of his existence.
The result was his conversion to Catholicism and the bas-relief sculpture titled "Ex Nihilo, the Creation of Mankind out of Nothing, as Narrated in the Book of Genesis." The artwork, still located at the entrance of the Washington National Cathedral, portrays eight human figures emerging from a chaotic background. It has become an iconic representation of creation and the human spirit.
Warner Bros. used a likeness of Ex Nihilo in the 1997 film "The Devil's Advocate" without obtaining permission from Hart. In the film, the sculpture was displayed prominently in the office of the main antagonist and portrayed in a negative context.
The video clip shows the replica of the sculpture that appears in the office of the antagonist, John Milton (played by Al Pacino). In this scene, as Keanu Reeves enters Milton's office for the first time, the camera pans slowly over the sculpture.
The sculpture depicts the creation of mankind from chaos as told in the book of Genesis, or more specifically, a multitude of naked men and women writhing in a primeval vortex.
In the film, the image of the sculpture comes to life and the multitude of naked men and women writhe erotically. This is where Hart had a problem.
The National Cathedral denounced the film as a grotesque distortion of sacred art.
Hart and the Cathedral claim confusion between the work and the sculpture and that
the depiction has damaged both of their reputations. And so they sued.
The movie had already been released in general distribution, but the video and DVD release was scheduled for February 17, 1998. On February 10, 1998, the judge ruled for Hart and ordered that the release be delayed 48 hours to allow the parties to come to some creative solution.
On February 14, 1998, the parties agreed to a settlement wherein Warner Bros. agreed to attach stickers to the videocassettes specifically disclaiming any relationship to or endorsement by Hart or Washington National Cathedral. Warner Bros. also agreed to make changes to certain portions of the film to eliminate any perceived confusion in future distributions of the movie.
This allowed Warner Bros. to release the initial run of 475,000 copies of the video, but required them to remove or re-edit over 20 minutes of scenes where the sculpture can be seen before releasing any further video or television versions.
Warner Bros. changed the cable and subsequent video releases by digitally removing the images of the people from the sculpture in the early scenes and significantly changing the presentation in the climax.
The Hart vs. Warner Bros. case serves as a cautionary tale for artists and the entertainment industry. The Hart vs. Warner Bros. case is not an isolated incident. There have been numerous similar cases in the art world, such as the dispute between street artist Shepard Fairey and the Associated Press over the use of a photograph in Fairey's "Hope" poster featuring Barack Obama. As technology continues to evolve, the relationship between art and copyright law will likely become even more complex. Artists and the entertainment industry must adapt and develop new strategies to protect intellectual property rights while maintaining creative freedom.