Earlier this year when elderly parishioner Cecilia Gimenez "restored" the Ecce Homo fresco at her church near Borja, Spain, she never could have predicted the internet sensation it would become. By now our readers are likely familiar with the Ecce Homo, lately more commonly known as "The Monkey Boy of Borja." Gimenez's restoration attempt unwittingly succeeded in making a deteriorating fresco of Jesus look like a monkey. Some might consider her action vandalism (whether Gimenez had permission to paint on the fresco and the scope of that permission are not entirely clear). Still others, including some of our readers, have pointed out that her finished work differs so markedly from the original as to likely endow her with copyrights in the piece.
Images of the restoration inspired a thriving internet meme, spreading from news articles, to blogs, social media, and humor websites. It didn't take long before people, seemingly inspired by the absurdity of it all, to make pilgrimages to see the the Monkey Boy painting in person. Visitors to the church increased exponentially, and the church now charges admission. As The World reports, Borja recently experienced a flood of tourism, and the financial benefits of Gimenez's work flow well beyond the church to neighboring businesses. Enter merchandising--the Monkey Boy internet sensation has of course inspired consumer goods of all kinds, including Halloween costumes and Christmas ornaments. It is unclear whether this merchandise was created with permission, especially because Gimenez and the church now dispute ownership of the work, creating further questions about who could give consent to reproduce the image. Gimenez is reported to have hired attorneys to help assert her rights in the work (and the profits therefrom), yet the church argues that it owns the piece and profits therefrom because it is on the church's wall. Another question looms, and that is whether any royalties to Gimenez would be considered profits from a crime.
Surely, the situation with Ecce Homo presents many legal and ethical questions. Still, I have to stop and appreciate the fact that what started as an internet meme has brought people out from behind their computer screens to go see a work of art in person, however unusual that work might be.