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November 9, 2009 Art Thoughts No Comments

Quick thought and quick question:  What, exactly, do you own when you buy a work of art?  It’s not something most of us necessarily think about – we simply assume that what we own is the work of art we’ve hung on our walls.   It usually doesn’t get any more complicated than that, but what if you decide you want to take a picture of your piece and that you want this picture put on some invitations for a party you’re hosting?  What if you decide you want to make posters of your art and sell them for profit?

Enter the word copyright.  It works like this:  While you may own the physical work, the actual image on the work is the property of its creator.  The fact that you have bought the work of art doesn’t give you the rights to that image any more than buying a book gives you the right to photocopy it in its entirety.  In the strictest sense of the law, this means that you cannot reproduce the image without the consent of the artist.

In the real world, however, and in the world where images and information are a mouse-click away, this seems an outdated and close-minded concept that better serves to stifle creativity than protect it.  How is creativity fostered if not through exchange and re-interpretation?   Think Andy Warhol, the biggest appropriator of all.  Campbell never went after Warhol, although one has to wonder whether this has to do with the fact that Warhol elevated Campbell’s soup to an adulated commodity.  Chances are Campbell would have had an adverse reaction if Warhol had placed their famous soup can on top of a corpse with the message – Processed Food is Killing America.

Mannie Garcia's Photo next to Shepard Fairey's Poster

Mannie Garcia's Photo next to Shepard Fairey's Poster

Did Warhol ever get sued?  Yes.  The photographer of the original Jackie O’  pictures sued Warhol for using his original photograph of Jackie in the Jackie 16, 1964;  Patricia Caulfield sued Warhol for using her photographs as the source of his flower prints.  Exceptions to litigation, along with Campbell, were Marilyn Monroe and “Mickey Mouse” amongst others; they obviously saw value in further promoting their images as icons.  In the world of commodity, there is nothing like free advertising.

In his defense against the American Press Association, Shepard Fairey (creator of the famous Obama posters) – defended himself against the AP wire-service by citing the fair use stipulation which allows the appropriation of an image provided it is altered from the original.  He did not take the original photograph and pretend it was his.  Instead, he altered it and in so doing this, made it his.  Add to this, that any money he made on the poster went right back into the Obama campaign.  What’s more, Mannie Garcia, the photographer of the Obama photograph, was never involved in the lawsuit.  As far as Garcia is concerned, fair use applies.  One site I read quotes Garcia as saying: “I know artists like to look at things; they see things and they make stuff.”

In my own experience, I have yet to come across an artist who hasn’t said, “Sure you can use my images just so long as you credit me and do not use them for profit”.  This, in spite of the fact that some of them still use the copyright “(c)”  mark , something I’m not quite sure I understand the necessity of.  After all, in the strictest, most absurd sense of the copyright law, if a photographer takes a picture of a building, are they not appropriating an image that is not only private property, but also the product of an architect’s design?  Similarly, if a visual artist paints the interior of the MOMA, are they not appropriating private property, an architect’s design, and the images of other artists?  What about ideas?  A writer hears someone tell of an interesting experience and then the writer writes a book based on that someone’s account of their experience?  Is the experience copyrighted?

More apropos to today’s reality, I think, is the Creative Commons approach (there will be more on this later) which allows for exchange and appropriation so long as it is not for commercial use.

The questions of copyright are complex and something where I am just beginning to get to know (note the certain confusion in the use of the copyright license denotations on this site).   But do think again before you snap a picture of your art work.  Yours, yes, but the rights of which belong to the artist.


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