Times Square Billboard Touches Off Controversy Over Artistic Credit-Sharing

Should Space150 and Forever 21 have paid or at least acknowledged a very similar project that debuted a year ago?

Hand From Above interactive billboard


UPDATE: We’ve received a response from both Chris O’Shea and Space150’s CEO, Billy Jurewicz, which you can find in full below.

Last Friday, we broke news of a new video billboard in Times Square for Forever 21, created by Space150, in which a model appears to pluck certain people from the crowds onscreen. It seemed like a clever, fresh project–and that’s where the trouble started.

Chris O’Shea, a leading figure in interactive-installation design, quickly wrote to point out that Space150 project bears striking similarities to something he did last year for the BBC, titled “Hand from Above”:


According to O’Shea, “I’m not by any means suggesting that the creators have seen Hand from
Above, but it certainly feels familiar. Maybe inspired by? What do you
think?” For comparison, here’s the Times Square project by Space150:


Someone writing as Billy Jurewicz, the founder of Space150, commented:

Chris, no doubt your work was a huge inspiration for us. Thanks for
pushing the envelope, and creating new possibilities.

One thing to note: When originally reporting the Times Square piece, we specifically asked what the inspirations were for the project, and Chris O’Shea’s work never came up–instead, Jurewicz and his technical director, James Squires, mentioned only “things going on” in museums and airports. However, Space150 apparently approached O’Shea about collaborating several months ago, but never received any response. (A source close to O’Shea confirms this.)

Should they have given more credit for the idea? The director of the Times Square project, Nicholaus Goossen, chimed in with the following:


Space150 re-imagined the concept, built brand new technology for it, and
then executed on a much larger scale without any help from Chris
whatsoever…If it was just a big hand making stupid tickle noises out there in Times
Square, I’d say you have a point. In summation, stop being such a hater and go make something.

And no less a figure that Golan Levin–a legend in interactive art–wrote the following:

A lot of people benefited in a lot of different ways from the Times
Square billboard. (What was the budget for this thing, any guesses?) But
one person — the artist who invented the core premise, and who showed
that it could be done — received nothing: not even the courtesy of a
heads-up. Not even being asked the straight question, “We intend to
reinterpret this idea; in respect of your obvious prior authorship, what
would be an acceptable form of acknowledgment/involvement/remuneration
to receive your blessing? So that we can go forth without damaging our
reputation in the worldwide community of interactive designers and

That’s just a sampling–the actual comments are getting quite nasty.

Of course, the irony that no one is yet pointing out is that the Times Square project is by Forever 21–a company all too familiar with being sued over apparently copying the designs of others.


But still, it’s hard to draw a line between inspiration and outright idea theft–and the law can be murky in cases such as this one.

[We’ve reached out to both O’Shea and Space150 for comment; we’ll add what they say if they get back to us.]



Billy Jurewicz, the CEO of Space150, writes the following:

It’s really great to see the passion and insights of the digital and artistic communities. We all learn from each other, all the time. When we started this project, we looked at a lot of different inspirations as varied as yesyesno’s amazing interactive projection installment and the classic “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” movie. And we talked with a lot of different potential partners. Chris O’Shea was one of those.

In March we asked Chris if he’d be willing to get involved in an upcoming project, but couldn’t go in to too many specifics due to client confidentiality. He declined and we started work with our team. A lot of talented creative people then spent a lot of time and effort bringing this entire project to the public – and we’re incredibly proud of the results for our client.

We have great respect fro Chris and his work and for all artists. They inspire the commercial community day in day out. As agencies – and artists – we can all work harder at crediting inspiration and sources that drive us forward. On a related note, Nick Goossen, while a talented and outspoken director, is not an employee of space150 and his views remain his own.

And here’s Chris O’Shea’s response:

I wanted to post a reply up here in my original post, as it would get lost at the bottom of vimeo’s 100 limit.

I had emailed space150 last Friday (when this launched) and was waiting for a reply before responding with my views, but I have not had a reply yet, so felt I needed to update this post with clarity on my views and the situation.

I have not posted the link above to attack anyone, or to claim a blatant rip off. My intention was to try and spark a proper and civilised debate over various issues.

I was contacted in March by space150, with them asking “We have a couple OpenCV projects in the works right now that our designers and developers are working through and would love to chat with you about the possibility of contracting your services for a duration on these projects”.

This is a very vague and generic request, but I turned it down because of being too busy.

However, what they should have said is that we want to make something like Hand from Above, with models for a fashion store in Time Square, did I want to be involved in any way, or at least take credit as their inspiration. But they didn’t.

Client confidentiality is not a valid reason for not mentioning Hand from Above, as you can talk about this without needing to go into specifics.

Was there any mention of my piece in their press? No. Should there have been? Well, that’s the part of the debate isn’t it?

Ad agencies claiming originality and innovating new tech becomes transparent when its clear where ideas were borrowed from or which programming open source frameworks were used (without acknowledgement).

For me a comment by Golan Levin below hit the nail on the head:

But one person — the artist who invented the core premise, and who showed that it could be done — received nothing: not even the courtesy of a heads-up. Not even being asked the straight question, “We intend to reinterpret this idea; in respect of your obvious prior authorship, what would be an acceptable form of acknowledgement/involvement/remuneration to receive your blessing? So that we can go forth without damaging our reputation in the worldwide community of interactive designers and developers?”

I also am not claiming mine is better. Although I feel my piece maybe has more heart, I have been complimentary about what space150 did…

“Good to see what can be achieved with a better production budget, such a using video for the animation, higher resolution camera and massive screen. There are a few other things it does like take a snapshot Polaroid and picking people out carrying a yellow Forever21 bag.”

I do not know Nicholaus Goossen. It appears that he is an independent director, and is not an employee of agency space150. So people should not take his views to be that of space150, just to clarify.

It is unfortunate that some people are being rude towards others for no apparent reason, and this needs to stop before Vimeo ban their accounts.

Advertising agencies are often lifting/borrowing/using the ideas of artists, and there are many examples online. The amount of content on youtube makes these sort of situations common now. It is easier to sell to a client something that has been done before, rather than invent something completely new. However such is the creative community, that people will notice and call an agency on it if the idea is too similar.

Of course giants are not new, and I am not claiming to have invented big hands. I am not claiming ownership of using cameras, computer vision or outdoor screens.

At conferences I often show my cultural inspiration for this piece. Land of the Giants on TV was a big inspiration for me, something I mention on the documentation page, seeing the fear in peoples faces as this big hand comes down to get them. God games (user controlling a hand) such as Black & White, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Monty Python, forced perspective (taking a photo on your camera to look like you are picking someone up, but they are just further away), walking through model villages.

After creating the artwork, people told me about video/animations that I hadn’t seen before, like Kids in the Hall sketch (pinching your face), Cyriak animations, I-park video piece.

But what I am not talking about here is cultural inspiration. There is a BIG difference between that and doing something that is fairly identical in basic principle.

Hand from Above used the settings of an outdoor screen and camera, a giant picks up people from the crowd in real time, removing them from the video and drawing an empty background in their place. This had never been done before.

This ad for forever21 does exactly the same, all be it with a bigger production budget and team behind it.

Unfortunately when this happens, this relationship between ideas and re-appropriation is one sided. If an artist had copied an advertisement on tv for example, making it into a video installation, then becoming popular, wouldn’t the advertising company sue the artist for copyright? Would be interesting to hear if there any examples of this.

Of course anyone I had been talking to about turning Hand from Above into something bigger might now feel less inclined to do it, now that space150 have done it, which could create a loss of earnings on an idea I originally had.

So if the creative community are tired of having their ideas lifted into commercials, what are the issues up for debate?

1) originality of ideas and ownership of those. If no ideas are truly original, where does the grey area of originality sit?
2) Should artists be credited for inspiration? Should ad agencies claim to be original knowing they will be told otherwise by social media later?
3) What should an ad agency do in an ideal situation in terms of working with artists?
4) What do artists want from ad agencies?

I hope the flame comments stop and it goes back to an interesting debate.

And Jurewicz has added this coda:


Chris O’Shea and I just spoke on the phone regarding his inspiration for our work, credits and what to do moving forward. We apologized for the approach that was taken.

Hand from Above will be acknowledged and credited as an inspiration to the “Model Pickup” scenes for all future documentation and communications of this project. We respect his position and work, and will do our best to make sure this process is not repeated.



About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.