Yesterday, Shelley Burke wrote from Chelsea, Quebec: “Recently I’ve been treating myself to copying some important artists and their paintings that I admire. Is it okay to put these reproductions on the market, while always crediting the original artist? Or is this totally not acceptable? Is it illegal? Or is it just tacky?”
Thanks, Shelley. Copying the work of an admired artist is great as an exercise. As a commercial venture, even inadvertently, it’s tacky. How would you feel if someone started to clone your stuff and sell it? I suggest sticking to your own vision — it’s more fun anyway.
That was my short answer, the one I sent to her. The long answer involves the moral decay running amuck these days. In an “anything goes” world, appropriation has become the norm. In our game there are new outbreaks of The Great Chinese Clone Machine every week. Down here on Main Street, low-end copy shops flog everything from unauthorized reproductions of living masters to stunning handmade copies of the noble and unprotected dead. Particularly since the advent of giclees and home inkjets, lots of folks seem to think it’s okay to copy other people’s stuff. We’re becoming an ersatz culture that doesn’t feel the need to own the real thing.
Part of the problem is that folks don’t see art for what it truly is. Painting, for example, is an inventive, explorative activity that happens to use colour and form. In other words, it’s creative, not imitative. When that penny thunks down in our heads, things suddenly become more interesting and exciting. Not strangely, folks also become more successful. Simply being able to avoid the ho-hum factor is reason enough to stop and desist.
When I’m asked questions like this one, I often refer people to the honoured Resource of Art Quotations
on our site. The pages on “Copying,” for example, give a variety of opinions, many contributed by wise subscribers to this letter. “Xerox copies, artists create,” says CJ Rider of Mesa, Arizona. Others, like old Cennino Cennini (1370-1440), are still telling us to “take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works that you can find done by the hands of great masters.” Just tear ’em up when you’re done and don’t try to flog ’em.
PS: “A lotta cats copy the Mona Lisa, but people still line up to see the original.” (Louis Armstrong)
Esoterica: Illegal? You can bet your bottom brush it’s illegal. Defending copyright and winning has historically been the province of the big guys like Disney. But more and more it’s independent creators, especially photographers, who are rattling the cloners’ cages. One doesn’t want to be on the butt end of a clone case. Apart from the possible fines and expenses, artists don’t need to have their fifteen minutes of fame for that reason.
Delighted to be chosen?
by Corrie Scott, Hastings, Christ Church, Barbados
I watch in fascination as people use my photographs for painting without asking. I am usually very liberal once asked but it can then be taken a step further in that people take my work and then put it on cards and sell them as their work. And then do not even credit me for them. One friend proudly told me she had downloaded all of my art off my website, printed them out, painted them, and then put them on cards and that they were selling very well. I quietly asked her if she had put my name anywhere on the card or my website. She said no in a most surprised way. I think she expected me to be delighted that she had chosen to use my work.
Seeing the bravery in work
by The Incredibly Neat Fleeboy Pete
It’s so important to emphasize the value of imagination in work and being free from the vagaries of other people’s perceptions or a reality as presented by others in education. So easy to say, “Kids these days and their lack of moral fortitude.” But what is really needed is to encourage the bravery to see the world in ways one’s own as well as respect the works of those who do. It’s the way we become world-makers either in the reality shared by others or in our heads that we want to get out. So copying for fiscal profit is not just a violation of the monetary value of our works but literally of that which we’ve trained ourselves to be, and often hard won. To ONLY copy for profit is not just illegal, it’s a sin against the value of the freedom of expression that is most highly regarded by those of us with that bravery. Selfish, but I think I’ve earned it. Because I look in the face of chaos and make order from nothing much. I want that to be seen as a worthy pursuit, regardless of content or style or how well it sells this season.
PS: I’ll be flattered if you reproduce this note in any fashion, and with any edits and wave all rights for you to copy it or print out a copy and put that copy on your fridge or write copy about the copy that you make from this copy so that you have a copy along with the e-copy that I’m copying to my drafts folder so I have an extra copy unless this copy does not go through. Copy?
(RG note) Thanks, Pete. We copy that.
Photographing in Public Galleries
by Robyn St. Cyr
A friend of mine and I were in New York for only 2 days and were able to make it to the Met and MOMA. What was surprising and disappointing to me were the number of people with cameras, camera phones and video cameras openly recording their experience. Even though there is a policy of no cameras and definitely no flashes at all, I was surprised at how many people went ahead and did whatever they wanted. It seemed that more people were more concerned about taking the pictures of the pieces than experiencing them. I’m not sure those folks even saw the artwork. They just wanted to record it. What better place to experience a work of art than just standing or sitting near it and taking it all in; their experience was a quick pic and move on. What really floored me and made me chuckle was when I saw people taking photos of photos. All of this behavior would be great material for an essay by David Sedaris. I wonder what he would have done ;-) I’m sure he would cut to the core of this behavior in an insightful manner.
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Getting ‘good’ before you die
by Marilynn Brandenburger, Decatur, GA, USA
I have been teaching adult students for more than 30 years, and I have seen the problem of copying appearing more and more frequently over the years. I can’t help but think that it’s directly related to the disappearance of art from the school curriculum and from our cultural consciousness as well. I believe all individuals have that innate desire to create, but because there is no longer an outlet for creativity during most people’s schooling and subsequent working years, many people are only finally able to reclaim their creative selves in retirement — which is where most of my students are. But by then, of course, there are no longer enough years left to learn all that it takes to develop masterful skills and a truly personal vision… and thus some folks resort to copying out of a sort of desperation, so they can be “good” before they die. It’s sad really. Somewhere, somehow, our civilization needs to realize that we really need to educate the whole person, enabling that innate human quality we call “creativity” to flourish along in the midst of what we currently call education.
Low standards — easily reached
by Shari Jones
Copies are just that, copies — not the real thing. If one sets standards low enough, they are easily reached. Along with overly available copies there is another category that bugs me. That is what the myriad of television design and redecorating shows call art. “Let’s make some art” slop, glop, match the sofa viola instant art!! “Anyone can do it!” I think this needs to be called “decor” not the art piece of the room. As a former graphic designer I saw this happen when desk-top publishing came into vogue. Layouts that would have hit the trash bin were perfectly acceptable because the client’s nephew did it on his computer. The standard went down not because of taste but because of cost. As has been said, there isn’t anything that cannot be done cheaper for those who value price alone. If we do not value our work and the original work of others — why bother.
AWS copyright dispute
Of late, the matter of copyright infringement met its pinnacle with the 2008 Gold Medal winner for the AWS competition and show. The artist who won, with a hyper-realistic painting, allegedly (at least according to the photographer and obviously from the comparison of painting to photograph) copied verbatim from a published photograph done by a well known photographer seen on shutterstock.com. The artist was obviously a very talented painter but has probably ruined her career, compromised her ethics and embarrassed herself by even the allegation of plagiarizing the work. There is a statement by the AWS president found here. They obviously find themselves in a litigious position. They have removed her work from their web site and show. There is a description of her process of working that was written up in American Artist, meaning she was going places before this happened. The artist’s web site has been shut down and most of the images seen on other sites have been removed. What a waste of talent, but it shows how serious this is both on moral and legal levels.
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. Several people wrote about Sheryl Luxenburg’s fuss with the AWS. The last time we mentioned her situation we received a letter from her lawyers threatening legal action unless “defamatory remarks” were removed from our site. I was in Bulgaria at the time and asked our staff to remove the material, which they did. My attitude on this sort of thing is to give the artist the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. Also to be understanding of photographers, who are also, of course, artists. There is always a possibility that the photographers, Kuzma and IKO, took very good quality photos of Sheryl’s painting. Kuzma may have photo-shopped more hair and face into the side of the head and then put it up, predated, on shutterstock. IKO would have reversed the image and photoshopped it a bit before doing the same thing. Some time ago I wrote to Sheryl and asked her for an update. She has graciously responded that she will get back to me later. She mentioned that the dispute with the AWS may not be cleared up until next year. I wasn’t able to find Kuzma or IKO.
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Orphan Works Act of 2008
by Roberta Dunkel, Jefferson City, MO, USA
Here in the US our government is giving the artists fits over copyrights — called Orphan Art based on artwork whose origins are hard to track down. Current legislation before congress right now if passed could take away any creator’s right to his own art, be it visual or performance, old or new. Artists can find more information and a protest form to sign at the website.
Without laws to protect our own artwork we will be encouraging plagiarism, and creativity will become a rare thing.
Stolen animal art
by Debbie Flood, Belfast, ME, USA
Right now there seems to be a huge amount of people stealing art, in the form of paintings and photography on the Internet. And not just from China. It is becoming a widespread thing in the USA and Canada. It is the ignorance of people, like the one who asked you this question, that are doing this. And many do know what they are doing and plea that they had no idea it was wrong. I have many professional artist friends who are now having to stop their creating to fight a few battles to get their stolen art off the websites of thieves and from eBay. Images are being stolen to sell on cross-stitch items, on checkbook covers and key-chains. In this time of economic uncertainty, people are looking to make a buck, thinking artists are rich from their creations and that we should let everyone use our creations that we worked so hard to design and work up into a piece of art. We artists have a lot of talent and skill that has been years in the making, but rich we are not. And why shouldn’t we get paid for our own creations? I too can say that the clone or thief had better be ready for what may come their way, as the artists in the genre of painting animals is strong and many and we group together to fight as one. I for one would not want to be on the receiving end of an artist or group of artists who have been done wrong. And if people have to come to you or to anyone else and *ask* if it is wrong to copy, then they know already in their gut that it is wrong! The members of the Canine Art Guild and the Equine Art Guild are a force of artists that shouldn’t be taken lightly. We are on a crusade at the moment of shutting down many websites and eBay stores with stolen animal art.
Rampant copying from the Internet
by Jennifer Young, Richmond, VA, USA
Copying as a form of study can be incredibly instructive, and I’ve often recommended to my own students that they spend a good deal of time observing and even copying the masters for their own personal understanding (as a learning tool only). I’m also the first to admit that we don’t create in a vacuum and are constantly inspired to new ideas both from the world we see around us, as well as from the creative works of other artists. But when you go about replicating not only the style but also precise compositions and move from learning to merchandising with these copies (presumably without license), not only does it do a disservice to the artist who is the copyright holder, but ultimately it short-changes the copier as well. Without moving beyond a mere copy, there is no artistry, no originality or artistic advancement; only mechanics. There is something lacking in these kinds of works. Even the good copies that I’ve seen lack soul.
Many people who aren’t actively involved in creative pursuits of design, composition and artistry simply lack understanding about copyright ownership. But I am constantly astounded by how many artists are without this understanding as well. The Internet has compounded this problem exponentially, as it has made everything so instantly available without even having to leave your house to buy a magazine or CD. Unlicensed copying is rampant online, and extends beyond the traditional visual arts to other media as well — graphic arts, web design, music, etc. But the Internet is a double-edged sword, as it also has the ability to greatly extend an artist’s reach and impact in the world. For myself, even though I have had my own frustrations with the “help yourself” phenomenon made possible by the Internet, I’ve ultimately had far greater benefits. I can’t even begin to count how many wonderful connections I’ve made, directly or indirectly, with clients, students of all ages, and fellow artists. So in a sense, the problem is also part of the solution that can inspire me to the next new idea.
Parodies and tributes
by Bruce Meyer, Arlington, MA, USA
In all the arts, there is a long apprenticeship process, formal or informal, by which the learner struggles to do work just like the masters. There MUST be some way to sustain the learner in painting, as he or she laboriously copies the detailed craft of the predecessor, and this has to include mainstreaming the process, and celebrating it.
Of course we want to distinguish these things from plagiarists. Parodies and tributes done in good faith have always been distinguished from pirated or plagiarized works. Turning the argument around, present day masters who have their students paint works in the master’s name strikes me as bad form to criminal, offending charity and truth at once.
Appropriating the masters
by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA
I have painted a scene of a woman adjusting the ties of her dress, standing in front of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and next to a table with a vase of tulips. I have copied Vermeer’s painting and it is one part of my new composition. It is part of a series I am working which shows people responding to (or oblivious to, as in the above situation) the old masters. In another case, a little girl stares in wonder at The Coronation of Josephine by David while her classmates wander, oblivious. The next painting I want to do will show an elderly couple, stooped and hand in hand, looking at a full size sculpture of a young couple in a sensuous embrace. I have tried to find more information about the sculpture (completed in the late 1800s I think) which I saw in a museum in Toulouse. No luck. Is it appropriate/okay/tacky to use the art of old masters as a compositional element in a new painting? I have read and re-read the quotations on copying to find some answers. I would be grateful for your perspective on this.
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by Jeanne Matthews, USA
In the United States, the copyright law allows an old master’s painting to be copied and sold on the market if these criteria are followed:
1. The original artist must have been deceased 70 years or more thereby making his/her work Public Domain.
2. The original artist’s name must appear on the front of the painting giving credit to that artist, e.g. “After (the name of the artist)” with the name of the copyist under that phrase.
Failure to give the original artist credit for the composition is not allowed.
I was once told by a Frenchman that in France it is allowed to copy a contemporary’s work and sell it under your own name as long as the medium is different, i.e. a photograph may be copied with paint, etc. I don’t know if that is true, but it would be illegal in this country.
Patrons will prefer your own style
by Karen Standridge, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
So often I see a painting by an artist whose style I so admire, and I attempt a couple of paintings in his/her “style.” If I do show them, the response is interesting. NEVER do my clients like or buy them as much as I’d expected. In fact, they prefer the paintings in “my style” even though I sometimes look at my own style and wish it were more distinctive. So not only is it “tacky” to try to pass off someone else’s work as your own, but also our patrons will notice and will continue to favor ours, no matter how many flaws we may see in our own work.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Basil Pessin who wrote, “What about copying from photographs? 99% of the artists I know do that.”
(RG note) Thanks, Basil. The word is “reference,” and it’s great as long as that reference is your own.
And also Martha Alexander of Knoxville TN, USA, who wrote, “A housekeeper came into my office and told me how much he liked my work. I was flattered. He said, ‘Hope you don’t mind, I took them and made copies of them on the copying machine.’ I was wordless.”
And also Marney Wardof Victoria, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I was one of the artists copied in the Chinese incident a couple of years ago, and although some of that was stopped, with your help, I found out later the Chinese are still making oil copies of my watercolour paintings and selling them as originals. I have decided it’s not worth the energy, time or emotional upheaval to pursue the matter.”
(RG note) Thanks, Marney. With a program of email bombardment and backup from The Painter’s Keys at the time, more than 800 subscribers were able to get their work removed from several Chinese clone-sites.
And also Mona Youssef of Kingston, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Having read so much about copyright and what is / is not allowed, I found out that if we are in love with some artist’s work to LEARN, that is okay to copy. And if we choose to give the outcome to someone else as a GIFT, is okay as well. But to have the nerve to copy and sell it, a child can tell you that is WRONG. It does not take two people to agree on this.”
And also Linda Saccoccio of Santa Barbara, CA, USA, who wrote, “Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, by Jeanette Winterson. I just picked it up yesterday by recommendation of a writer friend. A few lines from the back cover: ‘…Winterson continually reminds us that the term ‘art objects’ denotes not only things but acts. Art objects to the lie that life is small, fragmented, and mean; it instead proclaims the opposite. And so does Winterson’s wise and fiery book.’ ”
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