If you went searching for Bag of Tricks Cat’s latest album, Felix Chevrolet, on your preferred streaming service over the weekend, you probably noticed some changes.
The original artwork by Daniel Hill featured the local rapper, whose real name is Michael Gamarano, sitting on the roof of Felix Chevrolet, a Los Angeles car dealership with a famous neon sign featuring the cartoon character Felix the Cat.
Now, however, the album art has been covered up with a pixel blur and retitled Felix
The rapper was pressured into making the alterations after the dealership sent him a cease-and-desist warning accusing him of copyright infringement via direct message on Instagram.
Gamarano says the message, which he received on June 20, took him by surprise. Weeks prior, the dealership's Instagram account commented on the "beautiful artwork" when it was posted before the album's release date.
“I was really excited about the artwork when it was completed,” Gamarano said to Phoenix New Times before he altered the cover. “To me, the artwork of an album gives it a vibe. [To change it] takes a piece of that away from me.”
The message's signature indicates it was sent by Greg Iverson, Felix Chevrolet’s internet director. The rapper recalls discussing his intentions with him in person when he and his cousin visited the dealership in February. He explained to Iverson how much Felix the Cat meant to him growing up, explaining how his grandmother Ann Bennett wrote and performed the theme song to the cartoon. In a 2015 interview with New Times , he stated Bennett was only paid $75 for the song.
“He thought everything I was doing was really cool,” says Gamarano. “I asked him if I could shoot a music video there … It felt like I had support from the dealership.”
Gamarano says Iverson told him the video shoot could be arranged, but the rapper later abandoned the project due to costs.
The rapper, whose logo is a Felix the Cat with bloodshot eyes, took the record down for several days. Gamarano explained in a message to fans on his Facebook page that he complied with the request out of an inability “to fight the powers that be” as an independent artist.
Felix Chevrolet, which came out on April 26, charted on Billboard on the week of May 11, including No. 43 on the Independent Albums chart and No. 15 on the Heatseekers Albums chart.
Iverson confirmed with New Times that a conversation took place and he sent the message, adding that he told Gamarano that the iconic sign, erected in 1958, is protected property. In order to use it on the cover, he would have needed permission from The Shammas Group, the dealership's owner, and NBCUniversal, who owns Dreamworks Animation, the current trademark holder for Felix the Cat.
The character was introduced in silent films in 1919. The rights were purchased by Dreamworks in 2014 from Felix the Cat Productions, who acquired and redesigned the character in the 1950s to turn it into a fashion brand. NBCUniversal purchased Dreamworks in 2016.
Though the first Felix the Cat cartoon is in the public domain, the television show is still under copyright.
“We told the gentleman that we appreciate that you’re a Felix the Cat fan, and appreciate even more that Felix Chevrolet is something that you love, but we can’t let you use our sign on your album without permission,” Iverson recalls.
Iverson says Gamarano never got back to him about using the sign. According to Iverson, a number of artists have requested to use the sign in their work but are generally refused because of the complicated legal rights surrounding its use.
“To my understanding, [the cover] is an interpretation since it’s drawn and not an actual photo,” says Gamarano. “I’m not sure of how much of a case that they have or I have.”
According to Iverson, the arrangement is complex for the dealership. Felix the Cat must remain stagnant in any advertising or it violates the agreement that was made when the character’s creator, Pat Sullivan, and the dealership’s owner, Winslow B. Felix, decided to cross-market their brands in the early 1920s.
Part of Iverson’s job as internet director is to find items online that infringe on the dealership’s rights and report them. Iverson confirmed he forwarded the album’s artwork to the dealership’s legal team.
As for the perceived support from Felix Chevrolet on social media, Iverson explains that there are several people on his staff who assist with the dealership’s social media accounts. Someone could have inadvertently praised the artwork before realizing it was a legal issue.
Gamarano feels there’s nothing he can do. He knows any legal battle would cost him his financial stability. Iverson says it's not personal, but doesn’t mince words when explaining the company’s position.
“For him to be upset that we [requested] to take it down is rich, for lack of a better term,” Iverson says. “The guy who walks out of Walmart with a TV in his hand after he stole it probably feel he’s picked on, too. The bottom line is this is our property. We’ve had it for 95 years. We have legal standing and precedent.
“I understand he’s an independent artist. To be frank, it might have been better if it had been someone rich and famous that already had a career going, because then it would have been a lawsuit on our end. We’re not looking to sue people. We’re looking to run our business and not have people infringe upon our rights illegally.”
Gamarano isn’t the first artist to face possible legal action for using a copyrighted character on an album cover. Back in 2005, Sufjan Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty didn't realize they hadn't licensed the image of Superman from DC Comics on the cover of Illinois.
The label’s distributor, Secretly Canadian, initially requested that record stores not sell the record on the July 5, 2005, release date. Eventually, the label and DC Comics, who own the character’s copyright, reached an agreement that allowed any records that were already manufactured with the artwork to be sold. A revised cover was created to avoid any further legal action.
In the weeks following Illinois’ release, copies of the album featuring the Superman artwork started selling on eBay at inflated prices. There is already a copy of Felix Chevrolet on sale on the auction website going for $220 at press time. There’s only been one bidder since it went up.
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In addition to changing the title and the artwork, Gamarano released a “one-take” track titled “Cease and Desist” on Friday, June 28, summarizing the events of the last several weeks. It’s available on all streaming services.
Gamarano feels he shouldn't have had to change anything about his album, but he remembered some advice that his grandmother gave him concerning the cartoon character she was associated with.
“She said, ‘There’s a lot of bad luck associated with the cat,’” he says. “This is just part of that.”
New Times attempted to reach Dreamworks Animation for a statement. They had yet to respond at press time.