06/04/2009: Bad Artists Copy
“Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” Pablo Picasso
Over the weekend I read an article about every artist's worst nightmare. A website accused an artist of stealing copyrighted designs and sent him a bill for $18,000. The catch was that they were his own designs and to make matters worse, the website’s lawyers have started to call his clients to tell them. His clients are taking the accusations at face value and are furious. It seems a deliberate attempt to destroy his reputation.
While this case seems to be more to do with bullying tactics and a lawyer working on contingency, it’s undeniable that copyright will always be a contentious issue. Where one person can earn a lot of money from an original design or idea, there will always be the temptation for another to try to cash in. To complicate matters further, some industries seem to feed off the creative output of others. For example advertisers have been copying ideas from artists for years.
Remember the Honda advert that featured a Rube Goldberg machine that looked strangely familiar to “The Way Things Go” (1987) by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss?
One of the reasons for copyright is to give credit to the person or organisation that comes up with an original idea. But how do you distinguish between a coincidental similarity, a respectful homage, and a cynical rip-off?
And besides, I sometimes privately wonder if there is ever an original idea to defend. A good example of how ridiculous copyright can be was the case of Volkswagen blatantly ripping off Gillian Wearing's "Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say" (1992-1993).
If you remember, it was the one in which a businessman held up a sign that said "At weekends my name is Mandy". The problem for Wearing was that there were at least two very public, previous examples of the same idea: the Maxell advert and Bob Dylan's brilliant video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues".
I think the point of the law should not be to defend an original idea, but to prevent loss of earnings; in the above example, the opportunity to use “Signs” commercially has been taken from Wearing. In this respect, the law should only be used in pursuit of a far more important goal: to encourage and reward innovative and creative thought and activities.
Whichever way you look at it, copyright is something we have to take very seriously at Art-Switch.