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Derivative or Theft?

Friday 05th June 2015

The art world can be a tricky place to navigate sometimes, especially in the digital era. Thanks to landmark copyright cases about song rights and the legality of remixes, the nature of the legality of other forms of derivative artwork is often called into question - sometimes more legitimately than others. You may have heard the name Richard Prince in the news lately, or perhaps much longer ago. He's made a name for himself by appropriating the artwork of others and reselling it as his own, with the legal-grey-area claim that he has modified it and it's a derivative work of art. He's recently struck again, but this latest bout of appropriation is taking place in the age of the social media outcry, and things may not go as smoothly for Prince as they have in the past.

His original claim to… ahem… fame, if it can so be called, is from the 1980s when he took photographs of Marlboro cigarette ads and sold the photos. His works raise serious questions about copyright law and copyright infringement, but in a previous lawsuit where he was sued by photographer Patrick Cariou, he was initially ruled against - but appealed, and won the suit.

His latest exhibit, if it can really so be called, entitled "New Portraits", is actually a series of photographs taken from various Instagram feeds, enlarged, and resold. The entirety of the modification he made to the image was enlargement. This makes it easy to understand why one of the women in his photos is extremely angry about the situation, and wants a cut of the sale price of her photo - which sold for a whopping $90,000 USD at the Freize Art Fair. All but one of the photos Prince appropriated were sold, and Anna Collins wants some answers.

Speaking to the Toronto Star in an email, she said, “Appropriation without consent is not at all OK. For an upper-class white man who felt entitled enough to take younger girls’ photos and sell them for a ridiculous amount of money, (it) strips us from the sense of security we have in the identity that we put out there.”

Hopefully, as public awareness of Prince's quote-unquote artwork grows, he will be forced to come to terms with the work of the photographers he resold. Imagine how the music industry would react if people took legally purchased songs, increased the volume slightly, and resold them as their own work? The outcry would be immediate and those responsible would be so inundated with lawsuits they'd never see the light of day again.

Posted on June 05th 2015 on 07:41pm

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