Two Swiss artists are threatening to take legal action against Honda, claiming that the car manufacturer copied their work in the acclaimed "Cog" television advertisement.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss say the two-minute commercial echoes their award-winning short film Der Lauf Der Dinge (The Way Things Go), filmed in 1987. They claim that the advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy has drawn heavily on their film, which shows everyday items such as string, soap, balloons and mattresses - fuelled by fire, gas and gravity - move in a domino-like chain reaction.
Cog, which cost £6m and was filmed in 606 takes in a Paris studio over four days, shows the component parts of Honda's new Accord model interacting with each other to set off a chain of events. It was first screened last month.
Der Lauf Der Dinge has been admired in creative circles and won awards at the Berlin and Sydney film festivals. The New York Times described it as a "masterpiece".
Lawyers representing the artists, whose other work has been shown at the Tate Modern gallery, have written to Honda UK complaining of the alleged similarities and claiming copyright infringement.
In an interview with Creative Review magazine, Fischli said they would not have given their consent to Honda. He said: "We've had a lot of mail saying, 'Oh, you sold the idea to Honda.' We don't want people to think this. We made Der Lauf Der Dinge for consumption as art.
"Of course we didn't invent the chain reaction and Cog is obviously a different thing. But we did make a film the creatives of the Honda ad have obviously seen. We feel we should have been consulted over the making of this ad. Companies and ad agencies have asked us their permission to use the film on several occasions but for this reason we have always said no."
Honda UK's solicitor, Christopher Morgan, said the company had received a letter from the artists. He added: "The allegation is a serious one and it's being dealt with appropriately. It's a discussion we'll have with the artists."
Tony Davidson, creative director at Wieden & Kennedy, said the film carried various cultural references. He told Creative Review: "Advertising references culture and always has done. Part of our job is to be aware of what is going on in society. There is a difference between copying and being inspired by."
The dispute between Honda and the two artists is the latest in a series of legal wrangles over the distinction between fleeting reference and wholescale rip-off. In 1998 Gillian Wearing complained that a commercial by BMP DDB for Volkswagen borrowed too heavily from her Signs series. She also accused M&C Saatchi of using the idea of her film 10-16 in an advertisement for Sky television.
But she dropped her legal action when the artist Mehdi Norowzian was ordered to pay £200,000 costs in 1999 after he lost a case against Guinness, which he accused of breach of copyright in an advertisement featuring a dancing man.
In response to that ruling the Institute of Contemporary Arts has called for reform of the copyright laws. Philip Dodd, ICA director, told the magazine: "This is a big area of debate for artists, lawyers and corporations at the moment. The laws concerning intellectual copyright need a complete and radical overhaul."Reuse content