Dear Mr. Lee,
It’s with sadness and hope that I write this open letter to you. I know you’ll understand my story of an artist trying to make a dignified living. It’s difficult and sometimes seems impossible because everyone wants you to work for free or for “exposure.”
Back in January I was approached by an ad agency that was hired to design posters for your new film, Oldboy. They wanted me to design some comps to present to you. They told me the budget was small and that they could only pay me peanuts for the comps but if you and the studio liked any of them I would then be compensated fairly through the licensing buyout fee.
I know, I saw all of the warning signs but the idea of working for you and having my design represent your film blinded me. So I went along with it. Dealing with the agency was one the worst experiences of my life. It affected all aspects of my life from my marriage to my work and my health. I was taken advantage of, lead on, lied to, manipulated, and harassed for over two months while I put all I had into designing the comps. I wanted to impress you and I guess I did.
The agency told me, “Congratulations, Spike loved a couple of the posters. Yours is going to be the key art.”, and I was thrilled. But when it came time to negotiate the licensing buyout fee the agency made an insultingly low offer. But they said that the important thing wasn’t the money it was the exposure and potential for more work. After thinking about it long and hard I had to decline. I tried to negotiate but they refused. I make the same amount of money in a single day as a photo assistant as what they offered and I had worked on these almost exclusively for two months. Plus there was still more work to be done so I had to refuse.
The agency was furious. They told me that I didn’t want to mess with Spike Lee, that I would never work again, that I was a despicable human, that they wish they never met me, and that they were going to sue my ass to oblivion. For what, I honestly don’t know. We never signed any contracts or work-for-hire agreements and I certainly never agreed to donating or selling any copyright of my work without a licensing fee.
The worst part of all this is that I never even got paid the peanuts they owed me. I was fine with it as long as they were out of my life. I couldn’t take another condescending phone call because I was “only a designer.” Many sleepless nights forced me to chock it up as a loss and learning experience and try to move on with my life.
Months went by and I realized that I had done all of that work for nothing. Early in the conversation the agency told me that I could publish the work as my own for the “exposure” so since I knew I was not going to getting paid I put the posters in my portfolio. Little did I know that they would catch like wildfire and spread throughout the internet overnight. I woke up to a google alert the morning after and they were on blogs everywhere. I immediately emailed the agency to notify them that the posters were taken from my portfolio and published without my permission. The agency responded by threatening me with legal action and worse. I immediately took them down from my portfolio but the agency kept calling and harassing me for several days after with the same threats. They forwarded me an email you sent them asking for an explanation but of course they lied to you and said they didn’t know who was responsible. I hadn’t done anything wrong but I was still scared. Eventually the threats stopped and I thought I could put this hell behind me.
Last night I was browsing the internet and my jaw dropped when I stumbled upon your personal and your production company’s social media pages. I couldn’t believe that you had been using and claiming copyright on three of those very same posters I designed. I just couldn’t believe it. I perceive you as an advocate of the arts and artists and have a sinking feeling that you are as much of a victim in this as I am.
I reached out to my attorney and several colleagues but after sleeping on it I decided to try and contact you. This has been such a nightmare that the last thing I want is to extend this. My wife and I are expecting our first baby early next year and the thought of bringing them into this makes my eyes water.
I need you to know the truth. Some of the posters you are using were stolen from me. I tried my hardest to resolve this amicably but the agency just blatantly refused. I am a fan of your storytelling and respect your success as a filmmaker, artist, and person. I definitely relate to your passion for the Knicks and competition, just ask my wife and family. I wish you nothing but success with Oldboy and all of your future projects. I hope we can resolve this between us because the agency refuses to work with me and they have tormented me and my family enough. Please feel free contact me at your convenience.
Peace and Love,
Juan Luis Garcia
(11/27/13) UPDATE: I want to thank everyone for the overwhelming support. I have read most of your messages and emails and I promise to respond and update as things develop.
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“And that’s the thing I don’t get – if all this consumerism and environmental destruction brought happiness, it would make some sense. But all the key indicators of unhappiness – depression, crime, mental illness, obesity, suicide and so on are on the increase. More money it seems, does not equate to more happiness.” ~Mark Boyle
Jackson Brown Jr. (via at-kkoolook)