The Seidler File: Harry Pokes a Pig
The Good Oil
The Austro-Australian architect Mr Harry Seidler designed the Riverside building project in Brisbane, Australia, in 1983. To us it seems a slightly above-average high-rise office block. Many others regard it as Modernist masterpiece. Who are we to gainsay them? Certainly to Harry Seidler it was a pristine masterpiece. And it had to be protected… from a neon pig!
In 2002, Mr Seidler launched one of his typically boisterous legal actions against a modest publican who rented space in the building.
In 2002 the former Rivers Cafe and Bar tenancy, on the ground floor of the Riverside project, was taken up by the Pig'n'Whistle chain of Queensland pubs. The new publican, Mr Godfrey Mantle, made a few minor external changes, one of which included a cheerful neon pig, armed very appropriately with a whistle. The chain describes itself as:
inspired by the tradition of old style English Pubs and finished with a twist of grandeur and sophistication.
We are not too convinced about the veracity of that description, especially the use of the word
sophistication. But there you go. Rivers Cafe and Bar was not a great success. The Pig'n'Whistle
Mr Seidler litigates…
Mr Seidler was regally unamused. He really hated the pig sign. Dr Garry rather fancies having his house festooned with neon pigs, figuring that by the end of the year it would be hailed as a post-modern masterpiece. There's no accounting for taste, is there?
Maybe his umbrage had something to do with Mr Seidler's Jewish heritage. Maybe not. After all, Mr Seidler also took offence at Mr Mantle's perspex fence used to shield partygoers from street noise. Nor was he too keen on the publican's canopy that protects drinkers against Brisbane's sudden subtropical showers. We can't find anything in the Tanakh banning perspex or canopies, so no doubt Mr Seidler had purely secular motives. True, there is a bit in Leviticus that says priests who enter the temple drunk will die, but as far as we can see, this only applies to the sons of Aaron who succumb to temptation at the Pig'n'Whistle before Shabbat.
Dr Garry would be happy to drink beer without the choking noise of passing traffic and the eruption of an erratic tropical storm. Mr Seidler felt that Aussie pubgoers valued the enjoyment of unfettered fine Modernist forms above drinking beer free from noise and rain.
…under the Australian Copyright Act
Mr Seidler took the building's owner and the publican to court under the Australian Copyright Act. This Act creates a right of integrity of authorship, and a right not to have the work subjected to derogatory treatment (sec. 195AI). Section 195AK says:
derogatory treatment, in relation to an artistic work, means: (a) the doing, in relation to the work, of anything that results in a material distortion of, the destruction or mutilation of, or a material alteration to, the work that is prejudicial to the author's honour or reputation;
Then Section 195AQ says:
(2) A person infringes an author's right of integrity of authorship in respect of a work if the person subjects the work, or authorises the work to be subjected, to derogatory treatment.
We presume (we're no lawyers) that Mr Seidler relied on this section. At first sight, this gives an architect extraordinary power to control what happens to his or her building, possibly for decades after its construction. But the Act provides a very generous out for building owners. Section 195AT says, in part:
(3A) This subsection is complied with by the owner of a building in relation to a change in, or the relocation, demolition or destruction of, the building if:
- the owner has… given the author… a written notice stating the owner's intention; and
- the notice stated that the person to whom the notice was given may, within 3 weeks from the date of the notice, seek to have access to the building for either or both of the following purposes:
- making a record of the artistic work;
- consulting in good faith with the owner about the change, relocation, demolition or destruction…
The Act's effect
That's it. The early parts of the section bode well for the architect keen to see his (it is, alas, rarely her) creation remain virgo intacta. But now the anticlimax: section 195AT simply requires the violator to pop the architect a note in the mail, invite him around for a nice chat (consult him), and then let him take a few photos. There is no requirement for them to actually follow the architect's advice.
We believe the Act limp but reasonable. We think it would be madness to apply the general principles of copyright used in other spheres that would prevent alteration of a building for fifty years after an architect's death. Bonkers! But the provisions protecting architects are no great shakes. Naturally, the usual cabal of idiots at the Australian architect's union (the RAIA) lauded it as a great triumph.
Mr Seidler has a few whacks
We found the case more than odd. Mr Seidler wanted the building restored to the state that he had designed it: no pig sign, no canopy, no fence. Preferably, no vulgar pub. We were puzzled. Our layman's reading of the Act revealed no such remedies. We quote section 195AZA of the Act:
(1)…the relief that a court may grant in an action for an infringement of any of an author's moral rights in respect of a work includes any one or more of the following:
- an injunction (subject to any terms that the court thinks fit);
- damages for loss resulting from the infringement;
- a declaration that a moral right of the author has been infringed;
- an order that the defendant make a public apology for the infringement;
- an order that any false attribution of authorship, or derogatory treatment, of the work be removed or reversed.
Mr Seidler settles
The court had little power to grant any of Mr Seidler's demands, especially about getting rid of the pig sign. Mr Seidler knew that full well. As it was, the court never got to hear argument.
The settlement was confidential, but we understand that the Pig'n'Whistle was obliged to sign declarations conceding that Mr Seidler had nothing to do with their neon pig. Since they never had the least notion of making the claim in the first place, they were only too happy to put its denial in writing. Delirious, even.
We hear that the Pig'n'Whistle also offered to put in writing statements that they believed that Mr Seidler was not responsible for the Great Plague of the 14th century, nor for the extinction of the dinosaurs, and certainly had nothing to do with the outbreak of the First World War; but Mr Seidler was already on a roll, and did not seek to press the issue.