Artists and Copyrights: Another Perspective

Our NMPCA Newsletter Editor, Christina Sullo, published an article about rules to avoid violating copyrights of other artists, which was reprinted with permission from the Corrales Society of Artists.  We posted this article to the blog here to facilitate discussion. This Post contains another point of view.

250px-marcel_duchamp_mona_lisa_lhooqThe Corrales Society of Artists article does not take into account the the widespread discussion about this topic nor the many modes of expression in the visual arts. One small example is this blogpost by Kathryn V. Williams, blogging as funnypumpkin, showing an example of an artwork that I believe would violate the “do not” rules in the article, but which is considered a valid derivative art work by Marcel Duchamps, pictured at left.   Another blogpost by Mike Masnick contains some comments about  about the source of creative ideas and the relationship to “copyright law.”  While viewing blogposts can be interesting, I don’t think we will be living our lives according to what we read there, but it does stimulate our thinking.

OK, so we are ceramic artists here.  What might this copyright violation look like.  Perhaps I go to a fair and see something that I fall in love with…and I don’t have the money to buy it.  But being a reasonably competent ceramic artist, I decide to make one for myself.  So, I copy the shape of the bowl or the look of the figurative sculpture.  Chances are great that I can’t get a duplicate glaze or firing effect, but suppose that I do come up with a creation that looks enough like the original that a reasonable viewer might think it was made by the other person.  Now, this doesn’t really become an issue until I decide that the copy was so successful that I am going to sell it and/or make more of them to sell.  At that point, yes, I think the copies violate the rights of the original artist.  Note that the motivation to create the copies was to reproduce the creative work of another person.

In looking at ceramics, I often see work that is so similar to other work that you have seen that I have to read the credit carefully to determine who make it.   More often, I will see a certain style, glaze surface, or angle of work that makes me think there might have been common sources or direct influence.  Does it make me want to buy the cheaper work?  No, but then I have seen other people buy similar pots when they could not afford the original.

Let’s consider a more common scenario.  As noted in the previous blogpost, creativity nearly always involves building upon ideas we have been influenced by.  He says:  “Art never springs entirely from 100% original thought. It’s an amalgamation of what else is out there — put together in a new way. What’s even more ridiculous is that, in almost every one of these cases, it’s difficult to see how the “original” complaining artist is even remotely “harmed” by the follow-on artists. If anything, it’s likely that the later art would only draw more attention to the original artist.”

There is a strong current of borrowed ideas running through all our work.  It is just the way the creative brain works!  I have a book titled “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon.  He points out that if people call something “original” that they probably just don’t know the original sources.

I have a story about this idea.  Here is a scan of the postcaGrettFriendman1994Geminird image for a 1994 show at David Rettig Fine Arts in Santa Fe.  The artist, pictured next to the work, is Grett Friedman, now deceased, who was a member of the NMPCA.  Grett had this piece fabricated for her from a much smaller, two piece clay sculpture.  Years later, in the 2000’s, I was visiting with another member of the NMPCA (who had never met Grett) and who moved to Santa Fe from Texas.  He made very large wonderful sculptures.  I saw a sculpture of his in his yard that he had made from clay that was a twin of this piece.  It was about 1/2 to 2/3 the height of her metal fabrication, made from clay in multiple sections vertically, but was so strikingly similar, including the angle at the top of the two pieces, that I was stopped in my tracks.  Grett was already deceased, so I don’t know the source of her work, but I talked to the other artist and determined that he could never have seen Grett’s work.  As I remember it, his work predated hers, but it had never been shown publicly, so that Grett could not have copied it.  I can only conclude that both were inspired by some other work that they didn’t remember.

Nelson-Moore_LandscapeAnd, here is an example of derivative art from my own work.  In 2011 and 2012, I created a few of these works that I call collage sculptures.  The imagery on this one at left consists of a collage of 5 landsat photos (which are published on the internet).  I think there is clearly no copyright issue here, because the source photos are explicitly without copyright and are placed on the internet in a context to invite incorporation into other art.  However, this next imageNelson-Moore_L might be more questioned.  It consists of collage images taken from photographs of Arizona rock formations off the internet and greatly modified and distorted images of paintings.  The impetus for this work was clearly NOT to copy the original photographs or paintings.  I feel it is a valid work of art that does not violate any copyrights.  What do you think?

Judy Nelson-Moore

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