Andrew Thomason Aug. 21, 2014, 11:48am

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery until it turns into duplication, then it’s copyright infringement, at least according to a cadre of artists who sued Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam earlier this month.

Franco Fasoli, Nicolas Santiago Romero and Derek Shamus Mehaffey claim that Gilliam’s 2013 film “The Zero Theorem” prominently featured a rip off of a piece of their street art.

The plaintiffs filed their suit in Chicago’s federal court on Aug. 13, about a month before the movie is scheduled for a DVD and Blu-ray release.

At the crux of the complaint is a mural the plaintiffs painted in 2010 in Buenos Aires and subsequently registered with Argentina's copyright office under the title "Castillo," which the suit notes translates to "Castle" in English.

The mural covers a large wall painted a deep, brilliant blue with two fighting, anthropomorphic rats dressed in tank tops and jeans featured in the center. Streams of solid color flow from the eyes of a person's face on the left to the eyes of a partial face on the right, among other details.

In the film, which Gilliam directed, the exterior of the protagonist’s London home and an adjoining store feature a mural that has similar elements of the plaintiffs' mural.

The plaintiffs' suit includes side-by-side comparisons of their mural and the mural in the movie to highlight what they claim are clear appropriations of their work.

For example, the mural in the movie features ribbons of solid colors flowing from the eyes of one face to another and a single anthropomorphic rat positioned and dressed similarly to the rats in the plaintiffs’ mural.

The plaintiff artists claim the location of the mural plays an integral part in the movie.

“The Infringing Work serves as an important backdrop to the story throughout the Film, helping to set the scene for the world created by the filmmakers," they assert in their suit. "The exterior set featuring the Infringing Work is even depicted in the “Official Trailer” for the film."

Gilliam, they contend, personally gave David Warren, the production designer for the film and defendant in the complaint, direction to copy the plaintiffs' 2010 mural.

The suit cites an interview in which Warren is quoted as saying that the “graffiti is ours, which has changed the character of the alleyway to our world, as we like to phrase it… ‘Terry’s vision.’”

The plaintiffs -- Fasoli, Romero and Mehaffey, known by the pseudonyms Jaz, Ever and Other, respectively-- are street artists that sell their art internationally. They claim Gilliam has a “repeated disregard for copyright law” when it comes to other artists’ work.

They point to a 1996 case involving Gilliam’s film “Twelve Monkeys" in which he and his production studio were sued for infringing the copyright of artist Lebbeus Wood's drawing in its movie set. Wood was initially granted an injunction preventing the distribution of the film, and later settled out of court with Gilliam and his company.

Other defendants in the plaintiffs' recently-filed suit include Voltage Pictures LLC, Zanuck Company doing business as Zanuck Independent, Well Go USA Inc., and Amplify Releasing, doing business as Variance Films Inc.

Their suit includes counts alleging copyright infringement and violations of the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act and Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

The trio is asking for statutory damages, actual damages, punitive damages, all profits “wrongfully derived” by defendants from the use of the mural, prejudgment interest and attorneys’ fees.

The suit was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by Jami A. Gekas and Diego R. Figueroa of the Chicago law firm Foley & Lardner LLP.

The photos included in this story were taken from the lawsuit.

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