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Frida Kahlo by Guillermo Kahlo
Frida Kahlo by Guillermo KahloVia Wiki Commons

Why an indie artist is taking the Frida Kahlo corporation to court

Cris Melo is tired of being issued with legal notices for trying to sell her portraits of the Mexican painter

Get famous enough and you’ll probably wind up with a load of strange products made in your image. This is, at least, what has happened to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. You can buy Frida Kahlo tweezers (perhaps a pun on her famous unibrow), Frida Kahlo tequila, and even a Frida Kahlo Barbie Doll by Mattel.

The Frida Kahlo Corporation, aka FKC, which was set up in 2004, has bought out a bunch of these types of licenses and trademarks for Frida Kahlo products, meaning that they can collect on many of the Frida Kahlo items on the market. Set up by Carlos Dorado, a Venezuelan businessman, the FKC also consists of Kahlo’s niece, Isolda Pinedo Kahlo. They’re not the only organisation of their type; The Andy Warhol Foundation owns many of the rights for Warhol images, for instance, while Banksy has taken people to court over unlawful use of his images on merchandise. 

The Frida Kahlo Corporation – like a lot of companies that hold the rights for celebrity-branded products – use a “brand protection agency” (in this case called Red Points) to sweep the internet for trademark violations, often cropping up on sites like RedBubble or Zazzle, where people sell unofficial merch. 

However, this technique has led to a debate around whether people should be allowed to replicate the image of artists that they admire. According to the news site KQED, the FKC issued a notice to an independent artist from California called Cris Melo, who makes portraits of Kahlo and sells them online. It was 2011 when Melo’s Kahlo portraits were first taken down off Zazzle.

FKC spokeswoman Beatriz Alvarado responded in an email to KQED: “FKC has a legal obligation to police its trademarks, otherwise, FKC will lose its trademark rights.”

“We have been selling Frida all these years with no problem,” Melo says. “And now they want us to pay them to sell Fridas. This is our work. We don't have to.” She continued: “I stopped painting Frida for a while. Because if this is going to be happening, why am I going to paint more?” 

According to reports, this affected Melo’s finances and caused her stress, which might be part of the reason that she is now taking the FKC to court. She claims that her images were wrongly removed and that they do not infringe the trademark. 

“These are my images from my imagination,” Melo said, according to KQED. “I'm painting a public figure. I don't know what I'm doing wrong.” 

Alvarado from FKC told KQED: “Sometimes, in the course of policing unauthorised use of FKC’s trademarks, Red Points may accidentally capture non-infringing use of the Frida Kahlo brand by artists that are describing their artwork.” 

A federal judge will hear the case at the end of January, and the result could establish an answer to the question: like Kahlo herself, shouldn’t today’s artists be able to paint portraits of whoever they want?