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Can't We All Just Coexist?
Lawsuits and controversy over who owns the 'CoeXisT' sign
July 11, 2005
The stringing together of three religious icons to spell out the word "coexist" has been a crucial part of the Vertigo Tour since its opening night. This image, however, existed years before Bono put it on his forehead. Now, due to the increased attention, an American company with trademark rights to the image is suing web sites and companies using it without permission. The Israeli museum that first commissioned the image is claiming and protecting their copyright, and the Polish designer who created the image four years ago says he's being left out in the cold. All of this over a clever way of saying that we should all be getting along.
The sign is a crucial element of one of the most emotional and memorable portions of the Vertigo show: U2 concludes the heart-wrenching "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," and with the show's mood growing increasingly intense, a white headband appears on Bono's forehead for the opening chords of "Love and Peace or Else." The headband bears the handwritten message "COEXIST" with the Muslim crescent symbol representing the "C;" the Jewish Star of David, the "X;" and the Christian cross, the "T." As the next few songs progress, Bono kneels down, wrists crossed above his head, conjuring images of a hostage, now blindfolded with the CoeXisT band covering his eyes. In the European shows, the CoeXisT sign dominates the giant screen behind the band. And in the midst of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (which, according to Bono, doesn't just belong to Ireland anymore) Bono points to each religious icon and declares:
"Jesus, Jew, Muhammad, it's true...All sons of Abraham. Father Abraham, speak to your sons. Tell them, No more!" This CoeXisT symbol contributes to one of the most dramatic aspects of the band's show now seen by millions, but this symbol's history has a drama that is comparable to that of its use in the live performance.
Bono has said that he first saw this combination of religious icons as graffiti spray painted on a wall in the U.S. However, this May, many fans abruptly discovered someone other than Bono or a graffiti artist owns the rights to this image. Because no official tour merchandise has displayed this symbol, fans took it upon themselves to set up online shops selling t-shirts and other products to fans who may want to help spread this message. Web sites like Cafepress served as vehicles to make these products available. However, Cafepress suddenly informed those selling CoeXisT items on their web site that they were no longer allowed to do so because of a lawsuit filed by Coexist LLP, a company based in Fishers, Indiana.
Coexist, a small company that sells high-end t-shirts, was founded by four young men from Indiana. They initially filed for this trademark in 2003, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officially registered it in February 2005. The company has garnered significantly more press and attention since the Vertigo Tour began in March, with Bono wearing their signature brand in front of huge crowds throughout the world. To defend their now high-profile trademark, Coexist forewent any preliminary warnings to other vendors to "cease and desist" their sales of the registered trademark, and directly filed a lawsuit on May 12 against Cafepress and three other vendors who were already selling wares with some version of the coexist symbol prior to the Vertigo tour: Atheists-online.com, Tees.com, and Thierry Mirambeau of France. (The United Kingdom and U.S. Trademark Office records show that Thierry Mirambeau also filed to register their version of the CoeXisT sign on July 16, 2004, but it is not yet approved in the U.S.)
In addition to the ongoing lawsuit, Coexist report they met with U2's stylist while the band was in Chicago. Coexist has informed @U2 that they are currently in ongoing talks with the band's management, but they declined to comment on the current lawsuit or discussions with the band until all matters are settled.
Although Coexist officially owns the registered trademark rights to the image, they did not create it, nor did they get the permission of the artist who did. In fact, they first came across the CoeXisT image when they found the original version on the Internet, reports Intake Weekly, a local Indianapolis publication. The image they discovered was actually the work of Piotr Mlodozeniec, a Polish graphic designer living in Warsaw. He created the CoeXisT image in 2001 for a contest hosted by The Museum on the Seam for Dialogue, Understanding and Coexistence in Jerusalem. For the past four years, the image has been traveling the world in the form of a three meter by five meter poster as a part of The Museum on the Seam's "Coexistence" exhibition.
Mlodozeniec, the son of another famous graphic designer, Jan Mlodozeniec, recently spoke with @U2 from his home in Poland. He explained that he came up with the idea for the image in a rather simple manner. "I started to work with and think about this single word: 'coexistence.' During the process, it occurred to me that 'C' is the Islamic symbol and 'T' is the Christian one. What I lacked was the Star of David. I hesitated for a moment to put it in the place of 'X' -- as the difference of those two shapes seemed a bit too big for me, but when I did it, I saw it fit perfectly."
With his image traveling the world over the past four years, Mlodozeniec moved on to other projects. So it came as a surprise in May, when he discovered that Coexist had trademarked the symbol, and that they were suing others for using it. At this same time, he discovered that Bono was using his image in U2's live performances. How does he feel about the two uses of his image? Of Coexist, he says the company promotes "a feeling that they are idealistic and for the peace, but they are only interested in the money. They are dishonest people.
"They phoned me. They tried to ask me to give them permission. I told them I don't like it and I want them to stop doing this," said Mlodozeniec. At the time of our interview, the Coexist web site credited Mlodozeniec for first creating the image, but he says of the credit they gave him: "They make the suggestion that I have approved what they are doing. The truth is, I am strongly, strongly against them." He added, "As it is not enough, they are suing other people who use this design. So I do very strongly oppose that." Coexist has since removed any credit to Mlodozeniec from their web site.
His feelings toward Bono's unauthorized use of the image are more ambivalent. "I am very pleased that another artist is making use of my work. I appreciate what he is doing. I am happy that he is using the sign that I invented."
However, he continues, "I'm disappointed nobody from his crew ever contacted me and asked how I felt about that. After all, he should mention something, that I'm the author of CoeXisT design." Mlodozeniec attended U2's July 5th concert in Katowice, Poland, but his attempts to meet with the band while they were in Poland were unsuccessful. In written correspondence with @U2, Mlodozeniec's attorneys have maintained that Mlodozeniec is the legal copyright holder of the CoeXisT sign, that his copyright has been infringed upon, and they are currently taking legal action to protect it. They are not presently taking legal action against U2, but suggest, "The use of the 'CoeXisT' sign in concerts should be subject to a separate agreement between U2 and Piotr Mlodozeniec." They continue that Piotr "has the right to give his consent to such a use, even if it demonstrates indisputably a positive consignment." Coexist and Mlodozeniec are joined by a third party claiming a stake to the sign and willing to take legal action to defend it: The Museum on the Seam recently told @U2 that Mlodozeniec developed the image for their competition to be a part of their Coexistence exhibition, and that all participating artists were required to sign an agreement with the museum. According to Raphie Etgar, the musuem's curator and art director, "Only the Museum has the right to grant permission or not for use of these images. Since our lawyers are currently investigating any unauthorized use of the CoeXisT image, we plan to take appropriate action against any copyright infringement and seek damages."
Etgar continues about the design's unauthorized use: "We have had many requests for different images and for different uses and we rejected them all. As long as the exhibition is traveling, we will insist on protecting our rights and not allow competing uses for different purposes for the images." The Museum on the Seam has also issued an official statement about the CoeXisT sign and the Coexistence exhibition, which states, "All use of these images is restricted to the Museum on the Seam by agreement with the artists."
Meanwhile, U2 continues to use the CoeXisT image in their nightly shows without permission from Mlodozeniec or the Museum on the Seam. It remains to be seen what role, if any, the band will play in this battle over trademarks and copyrights. @U2 requested, but did not receive, an official statement from U2 or Principle Management for this story.
Currently, the future of the CoeXisT sign may be in the hands of the courts, unless all parties involved reach an agreement otherwise.
"Our goal is to promote harmony," said Christopher Tierney, a Coexist founder, of his company in a recent publication of Women's Wear Daily. "The idea is that we can all coexist together."
Let's hope so.
© Hutchinson/@U2, 2005.