Photographer sues French Lick resort over angels paintings

So much for announcing peace on earth.

Sweet-faced angels from the dome of the historic West Baden Springs Hotel, often trotted out at Christmas time, are now the subject of a lawsuit between the hotel’s owner and the artist who made the paintings.

Pamela Mougin, a onetime Indianapolis photographer who now runs a studio in Colorado, filed suit this month against  French Lick Resort & Casino, which owns the West Baden hotel. She claims the resort has used her images far more broadly than ever agreed to, infringing her copyright.

Mougin wants the resort to pay for its expanded use of the images and cease further use of them.

But a key question is whether Mougin can, in fact, copyright her images, which were based on hundred-year-old originals that adorn the walls of a tiny room at the top of the grand dome in the West Baden hotel.

Indianapolis intellectual property attorney Paul Overhauser said it depends on whether Mougin added any original artistry to the images or just copied them precisely. Mougin in her lawsuit says she photographed the originals at the top of the dome and then created an “archival hand-painted canvas series.”

“It raises an interesting issue into whether she can claim any copyrighted ownership,” Overhauser said, particularly “if she did a precise, as accurate as possible copy of what was already there.”

To have a strong case, Overhauser added, “she would need to make an artistic modification to what was pre-existing.”

There’s not a lot of money at stake, since Mougin was paid $18,500 in 2007 to make the paintings and then another $2,800 for what she describes as a “one-time print agreement only.”

But Mougin claims that one-time agreement includes an acknowledgment by resort officials that she had a copyright to the images. Mougin applied to register a copyright in July 2010.

French Lick Resort used Mougin’s work in 2008 to make a three-dimensional relief of the angels as a base for its Christmas tree, as well as on outdoor banners and on its website, according to Mougin’s lawsuit.

A request for comment from the resort was not answered Friday morning.

Mougin’s attorney, Theodore Minch, of McCordsville, did not respond to a message left for him Friday morning.

Mougin has done racy calendars of Denver Broncos cheerleaders and portraits of pro athletes, including members of the Indiana Pacers and Indianapolis Colts, and auto racer Eddie Cheever. Mougin was featured on the cover of Indianapolis Monthly magazine in 1997 and has also given photography lessons at the annual Mickey’s Camp staged by IBJ shareholder Mickey Maurer.

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