Artist wins suit against VW for copied work

A federal court jury has awarded an Iowa author and artist $965,000 in a copyright infringement lawsuit against Volkswagen of America Inc. and advertising agency McKinney & Silver Inc.

The suit was over a 30-second TV commercial for the Audi TT Coupe that was broadcast in 1999. Author Brian Andreas contended a passage from his story “Angels of Mercy” was adapted for the commercial. Audi maintains that the commercial is original.

The jury reached its verdict Tuesday, Dec. 4, after a five-day trial in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In awarding the damages, the jury said Andreas proved that he owned a valid copyright of “Angels of Mercy” and that McKinney & Silver copied the elements of the story.

Andreas — whose last book, Trusting Soul, earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2000 — said he sought a tape of the TT Coupe commercial after an associate contacted him.

“When I watched it … my mouth just dropped open,” Andreas said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was such an obvious thing. My next reaction was to write them a letter saying that this isn’t right. This has to be worked out.”

The $965,000 includes $115,000 against VW, Audi’s parent company, and McKinney & Silver — representing the licensing fee a buyer probably would have paid a willing seller; $570,000 in “disgorgement damages” against VW and $280,000 in disgorgement damages against McKinney & Silver.

Disgorgement damages result when someone profits unjustly from a wrongful act and must return the benefit they had received from it.

The jury focused on this passage, from “Angels of Mercy”: “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.”

The TT Coupe commercial, called “Wakeup Call,” says: “I think I just had a wake-up call, and it was disguised as a car, and it was screaming at me not to get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss my life.”

In a prepared statement, Audi said: “McKinney & Silver has assured us from the beginning of this matter, and continues to assure us, that this is their original work. We have always found McKinney & Silver to have the highest integrity.”

A spokeswoman for McKinney & Silver, of Raleigh, N.C., said the company is not done with the litigation.

Andreas said the award was “eminently reasonable.”

“We talked to the jury afterwards,” Andreas said. “They had no difficulty determining liability. They took two days to figure out the damages. But the liability they had figured out in a matter of hours.”

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