Haleigh Nickerson's image (left) compared to Terry Richardson's for a Diesel campaign.

Diesel and Terry Richardson crossed the line between inspiration and theft for a years-old campaign, according to a new lawsuit.

Haleigh Nickerson, a woman of color, photographer and digital artist based in Los Angeles, last week sued the brand and the once in-demand photographer in federal court for willful copyright infringement. The work at issue is Nickerson’s “Sista Soulja” photo, which she created in August 2016 and posted to Instagram. Her images were also included in an L.A. art show under the title “Girls who dance in dissonance.” Generally the images show a woman of color wearing a green, red and black costume in front of a red background with white stars.  

The following year, Nickerson claims Diesel included a photo very similar to hers in its new campaign, “Rules for Successful Living,” shot by Terry Richardson. The campaign image shows another woman of color in front of the same background, in a similar pose and wearing clothes of a similar palette. Nickerson called it a “blatant act of infringement.” 

Not long after the Diesel campaign came out, the fashion world began to distance itself from Richardson, who had remained in demand and highly paid since the early Aughts by brands and magazines. Amid the emerging #MeToo movement in 2017, resulting from rape and assault allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, a history of assault allegations against Richardson gained public attention, too. He has denied them, but has worked little in the years since and moved from Manhattan to a home in upstate New York.

As for Nickerson’s lawsuit, she says she was actually in contact via Instagram, where her “Sista” photo first appeared, with people “who were directly connected with Diesel personnel” that went on to work on the brand campaign at issue. She added that when she reached out to the model in Diesel’s allegedly infringing photo, asking directly about possible infringement, the model replied: “Ew, that’s what I hate about the industry…I knew something was wrong…makes me so sad that happened.”

A representative of Diesel said the company “rejects” Nickerson’s claims and even told WWD that the shoot at issue was “shot and produced in April 2016 by an outside agency — many months before Ms. Nickerson’s images were published.”

“Diesel will respond to Ms Nickerson’s complaint in due course,” the representative added. “Diesel has always prided itself in decades of award winning and iconic advertising campaigns that defined the creative industry based on excellence and respect for intellectual property.”

A direct contact for Richardson could not be immediately determined.

But Nickerson, who claims to have reached out to Diesel before filing her lawsuit, argued that the brand “knowingly and intentionally copied and utilized the most recognizable and constituent elements of the ‘Sista Soulja’ photograph by plaintiff that are original.”

She said the “copying is so brazen that they even copied the name of the work. Plaintiff named her work ‘Sista Soulja.’ Diesel chose to name the image in the Facebook video ‘Sister siren.’”

Nickerson added that while Diesel has spoken publicly about its desire to work for BIPOC rights and to be a “strong ally” for such talent, when she approached them directly to discuss its alleged infringement, no cures were made.

“Defendants cannot have it both ways, on the one hand reaping the p.r. benefits of pro-people of color messaging, while on the other hand remorselessly trampling their IP rights,” she said.

Nickerson, who is also concerned about the image being associated in any way with Richardson and his reputation, is seeking an injunction of Diesel’s use of the image at issue, an order requiring all such reproductions be destroyed, and that all profits derived from the use of the image be handed over to her, along with unspecified compensatory damages. For such a case to land in federal court, damages being sought typically need to exceed $75,000. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated after its initial publication, in order to reflect the position of Diesel.

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