Thursday, October 22, 2009

Copyright and Trademarks and Artists, oh my!

Obama Hope StickerShepard Fairey Sticker - it may be illegal for you to look at this picture

If you've been attempting to follow the many twists and turns of the Shepard Fairey case, you're probably wondering just as much as I am about copyright and trademarks in visual art.

I learned about this in college, but recently I've been thinking it could be imperative to brush up on current issues.

As a visual artist, my personal opinions are biased (grrrr, the extended copyright shenanigans of Disney). I tend to lean towards less extended copyrights, and more creative terms from businesses (like the USPS vs. Postal Service, wherein they got the right to use the Postal Service's songs in their commercials, and sell their CDs). I find today's legal copyright action against artists confusing compared to a variety of examples in art history where obvious sampling was applauded. Professionally, I want to make sure I avoid trouble.

Silkscreening (the technique Shepard Fairey's design uses/is based on) attracts copyright law trouble today like nobody's business. The technique involves direct transfers of photograph-like images, so the original artwork tends to be very recognizable.

Silkscreening started gaining popularity with the Pop Art movement - and the most famous works are of copyrighted images and products. Andy Warhol's did not get sued for his Coca-Cola and Campbell's Soup prints, they were direct copies of logos and branded materials, yet they sold for several thousands of dollars with no legal action. Lichtenstein sampled pages directly from DC and other comic books. No lawsuits there either.

Essentially, I'm not trying to start some sort of flame war, it comes down to these questions:
- Has copyright law changed substantially?
- Has the attitude of businesses towards artists changed?
- Has the public's attitude towards artist's rights changed?

Here's some articles of interest:
- From Warhol to Chuck D: Copyright Criminals at the Downtown Library
- Warhol is Turning in his Grave (article by Cory Doctorow)
- (Probably) Valid Fair Use Summary

SO - I'm going to Visual Art Exchange's "Business of Being an Artist" lecture series tonight. One of the topics is "Copyright Law for Artists" by an intellectual property lawyer. Interesting and topical! Hopefully I'll have some answers to these burning questions tomorrow.

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