John Leavitt
Jan 26, 2018 · 5 min read

“The Estate Of William Bradley Pitt Vs. The Museum Of New Reality”

By John Leavitt

In a windowless conference room under an airport hotel, people are screaming about copyright.

“This video game — or artwork, as you call it -” The dry faced lawyer cleared his throat. “ Is a clear violation of The Property’s rights. An obvious attempt to confuse the public with implausible fals-.”

“It is Art! A full-sensory Reality Simulation exploring identity, masculinity, taboo, and fame within the context of a contemporary dreamscape created by a fan audience that-”

“It’s called “My All Brad Pitt Gang Bang!’ It’s got nine versions of Brad Pitt going at it in a hotel room!”

“The full title is ‘My All Brad Pitt Gang-Bang Is Protected Speech.”

— — — -

Let’s rewind a bit.

I am an artist. A virtual reality artist to be exact. My technical title is “Experience Architect” but I always thought that sounded like I designed roller coasters or something. I create interactive narratives, what used to called video games. I was approached by the Museum of New Reality to produce a work based on the success of my interactive graduate thesis exploration of the First Person Shooter genre, ‘Let’s Kill Franz Ferdinand!’. My new work, inspired by 20th Century celebrity culture, got noticed by the estate of the actor whose image I used and they got angry. So angry that they demanded I meet them in an underground conference room at an ungodly hour of the morning with the intent of stopping the exhibition and/or suing me and the museum out of existence.

It was flattering to be honest. What artist doesn’t want to be a criminal?

Maude, my lawyer, thought differently. “Couldn’t you’ve used James Dean? Nobody owns James Dean.”

“James Dean doesn’t contain the multiple personae and breadth my work explores.”

“Use simpler renderings? Suggestive themes? Less fully detailed?” I scoffed. Maude understood everything but art.

‘My All Brad Pitt Gang-Bang Is Protected Speech’ was, without exaggeration, my greatest work. A meticulous recreation and replaying of an actor’s entire body of work as seen through shifting roles and ages. Decades of art and artifice collapsed into neutron star of self-love. The actor loving themselves loving the audience, loving them love themselves. The user can play any role they want, giving everything up to this celebration of raw vanity. The museum committee loved it. His estate did not. Thus the drab conference room. Thus the screaming.

The representatives of the vast corporate entity that owned of the actor’s name, image, voice, biometrics, and body of work (known collectively as “The Property”) walked into the room. Lawyers always want to meet in person. They think it’s more intimidating. Even doctors don’t do in-person calls anymore. They sat down without smiling or shaking hands. The three of them, despite varying ages and races, were stylized so alike as to resemble siblings or palette swapped game characters.

The first argument was over audio.

“Does this artwork contain any recorded audio from the Property’s movies, TV appearances, or interviews? Including audio recorded publicly?”

“No, we used actor sound-a-likes.” I don’t chop up audio or feed samples into a synthesizing vocaloid. Give me some credit.

“Why not use look-a-likes for the whole thing? Hair and makeup and costumes?”

“The praxis of my work demands I use the original article. I need the things people dream about, not approximations of them.”

Maude spoke up. “In addition to artistic integrity, my client’s job with the museum depends on use of emerging technology and reality simulation.” She tapped the tablet, sending a copy of the museum’s contract over.

“You knew that using the Property’s likeness would create substantial interest in this-” the center lawyer coughed. “Artwork?”


“So, you admit your intention to violate our ownership of the Property with fraudulent and illegal exploitation of his name, reputation and image in the promotion of your employer’s museum?”

Maude shot back, breathlessly reciting the entire history legal history supporting artists to use real life figures in their work. I spoke up, defending ‘My All Brad Pitt Gang-Bang Is Protected Speech.’ as the artistic and distinct work it was. I made a very grand speech about freedom, and art, or something. They mentioned how absurd and libelous it was to have Brad Pitt realistically screwing himself in nine possible ways, 12 if I played with the settings.

“That just proves my point!” I shouted, doing exactly what Maude said not to do. “No one would mistake it for an actual Brad Pitt movie or a recorded reality! Tyler Durden in a passionate embrace with Johnny Suede while Joe Black and Aldo Raine watch on! It’s not a positive endorsement for anything! It’s a brand new performance, a transformative work.”

I slumped into my seat. “I put new programming in the models and everything.”

“The intent is mercantile; you’re using our Property’s image and fame to draw attention to your work.”

“Work I’m not being paid for. It’s a gift to the museum.”

“Souvenirs then. Admission tickets. Merchandise! It’s a clear attempt to make it seem like an endorsement of the work and museum.”

“It’s descriptive.” Maude said. “ He’s the subject of the work, not an endorsement of it. You wouldn’t say somebody in a political cartoon endorses the content of the work. There’s a long established legal tradition backing fictionalizations of historical personages.”

An idea flashed across my mind. I spoke before the center lawyer had a chance to respond.

“Fine. We won’t use his name.”

“You can’t and won’t use our Property’s name or image or reference to previous works in the advertising, naming, or promotion of this work.” I bristled at the word ‘can’t’ and was about to shoot back when I noticed Maude’s eyes bugging out. I dialed it back.

“We’ll advertise it with anonymous male shadows and call it “An Intimate Evening With-”

“A ‘Private’ Evening.” the lawyer on the left said.

“A Private Evening With Figures That Merely Resemble A-”

“Merely Resemble But Are Legally Distinct From.” said Maude.

“A Private Evening With Figures That Merely Resemble But Are Legally Distinct From A Late 20th Century Actor.”

The lawyers sighed. The center lawyer raised her head. “That will do.”

I nodded. I have to give the suits credit, that’s ten times better than anything I could come up with.


John Leavitt

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Writer and cartoonist for The Toast, The Awl, and The New Yorker. That guy you met at that party once. More at