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Questioning the legality of appropriation

08 Sep, 2015 - 21:09 0 Views

The Herald

Knowledge Mushohwe Art Zone
Creators of any products, including artists should by now be aware of what constitutes copyright laws. Some artworks, however, appear to ignore the statutes that govern works of artistic expression. Appropriation art, a form of creativity that borrows images from popular culture, advertising, the mass media, other artists and elsewhere, incorporates these well-known compositions into new works of art.

Appropriation artists argue that often, the ‘original’ artist’s technical skills are less important than the conceptual power of his work that there may be a window for further development of their meaning. Some appropriation art does not implicate copyright law at all. For example, Marcel Duchamp exhibited ready-made objects such as a urinal; bicycle wheel and snow shovel as works of art.

But when the borrowed image is copyrighted, as is the case with some of the most ‘copied’ works such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa, appropriation art risks infringing the rights of the copyright owner. Appropriation artist Richmond Burton, in defence of his line of work, rather arrogantly said, “Whenever people’s response is ‘how dare you!’ I consider that a high compliment. First of all, taking from other artists is not illegal in the art world, as it is in the music industry, and second, it is a direct acknowledgment of how we work in painting.

“Everything you do is based on what came before and what is happening concurrently. I don’t see history as monolithic. I feel very free to take and change whatever I want, and that includes borrowing from my contemporaries.

“If some people are upset because my work has similarities to what they’re doing, that’s their problem. And if they take from me, that’s great! I don’t respect these artificial boundaries that artists and people around artists erect to keep you in a certain category”

In a way, Burton has a point.

Copyright law protects expression but not ideas.

If an artist has an idea that he casually mentions to his peers but does not develop it into a product, any of the people with knowledge of the idea are free to develop the concept further.

But brazenly ‘lifting’ a composition that is protected and pass it off as a new product is stealing.

In these days of high activity on the social media, it has become common for users to simply grab and claim ownership of works that otherwise belong to someone else.

Some may argue that they are sharing information, but unauthorised reproduction of someone’s copyrighted work is illegal.

Regardless, it would appear that victims in the visual art copyright wars only complain or raise alarm bells when they are either prejudiced of money or are realising that the other parties are getting paid for doing very little.

When there is no money involved, no one complains, apparently.

For example, copying a few pages from a book probably does not harm the copyright holder because the copier would not have bought the book.

Here fair use creates a net social gain.

The copier benefits and the copyright holder is not harmed.

Another circumstance that justifies fair use may be termed implied consent.

A newspaper or television may review an art exhibition and reproduces a few copyrighted images from the show.

This will provide useful information to consumers that on average will tend to expand the demand for the underlying works.

Given the above examples, it is clear that copying is no longer as clear cut as it was in earlier years.

Today, with the heavy use of digital media, there is less and less claims of ownership of any online content.

For example, several digital newspapers at a time are using the exact news articles, word for word, without ever mentioning the source.

No one is complaining because information is no longer the prerogative of one source.

Rather, digital newspapers are now more concerned with breaking the news.

Becoming the first to tell readers about the news is now the ‘original’ bit, not the words, meaning or context.

And when you are the one breaking the news most of the time, you gain a reputation and readers routinely visit your site to check on what is available.

The more visitors a digital newspaper has, the more valuable it is.

Appropriation art may well be stealing, given that standing statutes clearly outlaw the blatant duplication of artworks.

One would argue that there are millions of new ideas and concepts that are waiting to be explored and artists merely waiting to pounce on others’ thoughts.

But in this age, where information is being produced and shared at a very fast pace, appropriation may not be such a bad idea, particularly if it somehow points the viewer towards the original artwork.

Appropriation art may be labelled theft by those that truly value originality, but its significance as alternate meaning or concept of what the world already knows cannot be lost.

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