Copyright Suit Based on Pill Jewelry Fails to Pin Damien Hirst

Pill-themed jewelry by artists Damien Hirst (left) and by Colleen Wolstenholme (right). (Composite via Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Exploring pharmaceutical themes in his work for decades, British artist Damien Hirst averted a lawsuit Tuesday over his jewelry line exploring the concept.

Hirst’s reputation as one of the most prominent and provocative members of the Young British Artists reached its height during the 1990s.

One of his first major works, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” showed a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, a piece that crossed the pond to New York at the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s then-scandalous “Sensation” exhibition.

One of Hirst’s artworks showcased at that exhibition included the room-sized installation “Pharmacy,” where shelves of pill-filled bottles lined the walls.

But when Hirst revisited that topic by crafting pill-themed jewelry, Canadian artist Colleen Wolstenholme cried foul — and copyright infringement.

Accusing Hirst of ripping off her “Charmed” series exploring the concept, Wolstenholme claimed in a June 2016 federal lawsuit that she had been making jewelry out of sedatives and antidepressants for decades.

U.S. District Judge John Koeltl flushed the case Tuesday, however, before discovery.

“The Hirst bracelets contain numerous differences from ‘Charmed’ in the selection, arrangement and coordination of the charms,” the 36-page ruling states. “The bracelets are comprised of different replica pill charms and a different number of pill charms. The arrangement of the charms is thus necessarily different in each bracelet.”

When she filed her lawsuit, Wolstenholme said that her application for copyright protection had been pending for months, and she has since withdrawn her claim that the pills themselves are copyrightable.

“This concession was understandable in light of cases stating that derivative works which simply cast a prior work in a new medium are not original,” Koeltl wrote.

The judge noted that pills account for only some of Hirst’s jewelry; his line explores other longstanding themes of fame and mortality as well.

“One bracelet has a diamond-encrusted skull charm, as well as a plaque charm which is etched with Mr. Hirst’s name on the front and his signature and an edition number on the back,” the ruling states.

Comparing photographs of the works, Koeltl found they only shared a concept in common.

“These differences in the selection, arrangement, coordination, design, and number of replica pills on the two sets of works render the overall look and feel of the protectable aspects of the jewelry dissimilar,” he wrote. “Any similarity of the jewelry is attributable to the fact that both artists were working from the same basic design premise.”

Attorneys for the artists did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.

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