Copyright as Subject

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In any discussion of the cultural heritage community's response to intellectual property, one should mention art that explicitly addresses copyright. Of course sometimes art works become unintentionally well-known for copyright issues that arise around them. These artworks can become exemplary of a specific intellectual property issue, or can even become cultural touchstones and rallying points for copyright activism. One work in the former category is the aforementioned sculpture by Jeff Koons, String of Puppies. A work in the latter category is Molotov, a painting by artist Joy Garnett. Joy Garnett's paintings incorporate mass media imagery in the form of painted versions of photo-journalistic images that she finds online and elsewhere. Her subject is not just the subject of the photo, but the photo itself as a cultural artifact. In one such painting, Molotov, she cropped and painted an image of a young man about to toss a soda bottle Molotov bomb. She exhibited this painting and was sued by the photojournalist who had produced the original photograph. This might have remained a routine instance of alleged copyright infringement but for what happened next. The art community rallied to Garnett and many artists began appropriating the same image for works of their own, sometimes changing the contents of the bottle or other details, in a cultural movement that became known as Joywar!Footnote 24

Of course some works address copyright explicitly. Carrie McLaren curated an art exhibition called Illegal Art that gathered together such art.Footnote 25 McLaren said that this exhibition was intended to create a forum for public debate around issues of copyright, culture, and art. McLaren went on to say that usually such debates take the form of inaccessible legal discourse that excludes most of society, including most artists. Illegal art intended to put a human face on the debate. McLaren added that copyright law reflects a skewed perception that any artist, any creator, can be wholly original, when in fact every act of creation builds upon earlier acts across the chain of humanity.

There are also works that address intellectual property through their form and method of creation rather than as pictorial subject. For instance, some digital art works take the form of collaborative forums or software tool-kits such as Carnivore or Life-like by Lisa Jevbratt.Footnote 26 In these projects, the work of the original artist is essentially unfinished and open-ended. They invite other artists (or anyone for that matter) to use the tools provided to complete or extend the work, thus creating a work that is theoretically never finished and includes an infinite number of collaborators. The distributed creatorship represented by these works calls attention to digital cultures of sharing and collaboration in sharp distinction to the traditional artistic stereotype of the heroic artist struggling alone. One can begin to see how questions about the concept of originality combined with inherently collaborative media might cause friction between contemporary digital art practice and copyright law apparently premised on the vision of the wholly original creator working in isolated competition.

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