A soft drink giant, a photographer, and artistic license

August 2005 -

"Where do you draw the line in order to protect the artist’s freedom of expression?," asks Sharad Haksar, renowned Indian photographer. Haksar was recently threatened with a law suit by Coca Cola (India) for allegedly hurting their reputation with his hoarding on the shortage of drinking water in urban India. The matter was settled in a mutually agreeable manner, but it revealed the tenuous balance between trademark rights and artistic freedom.


photo: Sharad Haksar

In the Indian city of Chennai, Haksar displays a photograph on a hoarding every month, in order to increase awareness about various issues, such as drunken driving, cancer and AIDS. In July, Haksar’s hoarding showed pots waiting to be filled with water from a hand-pump, with the Coca Cola logo as a backdrop. In India, Coca Cola bottling plants are accused of depleting water resources in a country that already faces severe water shortages. The multinational threatened legal action if Haksar did not take the poster down immediately. Haksar refused to oblige: "The point of the photograph was to highlight the problem of water shortages in my city, not to bring Coca Cola down."

Haksar does not see himself as a social activist, but his photographs express his viewpoint on various subjects. On one occasion, his hoarding showed a boy urinating against a wall that displayed the Nike logo and motto. The photograph was intended as a call to residents to keep their city clean but it angered Nike. That conflict was resolved amicably.


foto: Sharad Haksar

Haksar would prefer if multinational companies picked their battles wisely. "Multinationals should not waste their time making the lives of individual artists miserable. They should look at the bigger picture. If I were misrepresenting myself as a Coca Cola employee or working for a rival company, they have a right to be upset. But here, there are no commercial gains for me. Their action has only served to draw more attention to the photograph."

The Coca Cola and Nike photographs will be published by Haksar in a book called Brand Ironies, in which his photographs ‘relate advertising pieces to ground reality.’ "If MNCs do not want their trademark image used in art, they should have a disclaimer on every one of their products! By that yardstick, if I take a photograph of a street, house-owners can object to their house being in the image. Where does it stop?"