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EXCLUSIVE: Legal Drama Shadows Oscar-Nominated 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Paranoid Pictures

Today, Exit Through the Gift Shop scored an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

Directed by the prolific British artist Banksy, the film tells the story of the incredible rise of Thierry Guetta, aka "Mr. Brainwash," from a part-time videographer to a celebrated street artist who has made millions of dollars selling "Mr. Brainwash" art. Since the documentary's release, it has enjoyed incredible critical buzz as well as controversy from those who have wondered whether the film is a fabrication. Meanwhile, without much fanfare, a lawsuit is ongoing that puts some of the creativity seen in the film under the legal microscope.

Exit Through the Gift Shop premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival. Ever since then, some have wondered whether the tale of a French immigrant turned art sensation is too good to be true. Some have called the documentary a "hoax."  Others have defended its authenticity.

Here's what we know.

In November, under penalty of perjury, Guetta gave a sworn deposition that the artwork was his own and not, as some have speculated, a fabrication by Banksy.

Guetta's testimony was given in an ongoing lawsuit that deserves attention. His declaration of authorship may put to rest some conspiracy theories out there about the making of Exit Through the Gift Shop, but also has exposed him to charges of violating the copyright of a fellow artist.

That artist would be Glen E. Friedman, who sued Guetta at the end of 2009, objecting to the way that Mr. Brainwash had appropriated one of his photographs -- specifically, an image of the music group Run DMC, first published in a 1994 book. Friedman says that Mr. Brainwash took his copyrighted photo without consent and made derivatives. Guetta is claimed to have used the image in art-work, t-shirts, post-cards, etc. (Example below)

The case pits a copyright owner's ability to control derivative works against an artist's ability to make 'fair use' transformations of copyrighted material. If the copyright vs. free speech battle lines sound familiar, it's almost exactly the same claims covered in the Associated Press' lawsuit against Shepard Fairey, when the famous street artist took a copyrighted photograph to create the Barack Obama "Hope" image. (That case recently made news after the two primary parties in the case settled with each other.) Ironically, Fairey appeared in Exit Through the Gift Shop as a central character who helped Mr. Brainwash in his rise to the top of the art world. Yet more irony -- Friedman has collaborated with Fairey on past art projects.

Since Friedman's lawsuit was first filed, the case has grown more entertaining, especially for those who have seen Exit Through the Gift Shop

In Guetta's November deposition, he admitted to using the Run DMC art on specially-made postcards intended to promote the "Life is Beautiful" exhibit, which was held in Los Angeles and featured prominently in the film.

Now, as a result of that admission, lawyers for Friedman are going after "indirect profits" from the "Life is Beautiful" exhibit, which was shown in one of the documentary's crucial scenes to have made substantial money. A judge recently ordered Guetta to turn over financial documents from the show, dismissing objections made by Guetta's attorneys about the relevancy of those documents.

The case is still in the midst of the discovery phase and could yield some more developments going forward.

Douglas Linde, the attorney for Friedman, says he has no plans to depose Banksy, so the artist is free to show up at the Oscars without any worry of being served with a subpoena. However, Linde may have his eyes on the film itself. Linde says he's going to look into subpoenaing any unseen footage from the film that might tie Guetta to his Run DMC art.