Artist Says California Must Halt Use of Whale Tail Plates

A whopper of a fight has escalated over who should benefit from the proceeds of California's popular whale tail license plate.

Artist Robert Wyland, who created the image and gave it to the state to help raise funds for marine programs, said he would announce at a press conference Wednesday that the state can no longer use his work.

Wyland and his attorneys have been unsuccessfully demanding that 20 percent of the plate royalties go to his nonprofit conservation foundation — an estimated $750,000 per year.

"At the end of the day, it's my art," Wyland, 51, said Tuesday.

Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, which negotiated the original deal with Wyland, said the state won't stop using the plate until a replacement image is found. The commission negotiated a handshake deal with Wyland, one that has resulted in nearly $40 million in revenues since 1997.

The commission contends the artist handed over the rights with no strings attached, but Wyland said he never intended for his work to be used for free forever.

"How arrogant could you be to take $40 million from an artist's image and not give any credit to the artist, his foundation and the artist's program?" Wyland asked.

The artist, famous for his mammoth outdoor murals of whales, said he allowed the state to use his intellectual property for more than a decade. Wyland is upset that repeated requests for donations to his Wyland Foundation in Laguna Hills went largely ignored until 2005 when it received about $20,000.

"I know the Coastal Commission has gotten a lot of money from his license plates and I think his request to get a little of it is reasonable," said Tony Haymet, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

Others have been critical of the artist.

"My perspective is good riddance — that whale tail has always reminded me of an offshore oil derrick," said Mark Massara, an attorney and director of the Sierra Club's California Coastal Program.

The whale tail license program was created in 1994 and has become a popular way for drivers to support coastal protection programs. The plates cost $90 extra and another $65 extra for renewal every year

As of January, more than 126,000 drivers had bought the plates and sales and renewal fees topped more than $39.6 million for environmental programs. The money is put into a fund for distribution to agencies including the Coastal Commission, which uses it to pay for programs including marine science summer camps and beach cleanup days.

The commission is now planning to create a new whale tail plate designed by another artist — this time under written contract.

"We certainly are going to have a written release," Douglas said. "Oh absolutely. We learned our lesson."