Classroom Topics: Art Theft

It's been a hot topic on social media for awhile, and especially within the new administration: plagiarism (enter appropriated speeches and #cakegate). Before stolen inaugural cake designs, large businesses (Zara, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21) have been stealing artists’ designs with no repercussion. (Note: To fight back, artists are selling works through sites like “Shop ZARA’s Art Theft Collection”).

As an art educator, it brings a two-fold conversation into the classroom: 1) how can artists protect their work, and 2) how not to steal from someone else. The first has more clear-cut answers--don’t post your photos on Facebook, post low-quality images online if you don’t have a watermark, or take a cue from stop-motion animation graffiti artist BLU, who outlines specific uses for his video work as a preface to each animation. Now, if a large business does take your work, things get imaginably more complicated -- so far, Zara responded to legal claims with the following statement from their team:

“ We reject your claims here for … the lack of distinctiveness of your client’s purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen.”

So, it comes down to who is more popular? In art copyright, as in life, what is legal is often not what is ethical, and Zara et al. are a bit less enthusiastic about the latter. So don’t get bitter, get prepared. The same argument has won out in an artist’s favor when Jeff Koons stole a greeting card design for “String of Puppies.”

Art Rogers "Puppies", 1985. Jeff Koons "String of Puppies", 1988.

The issue I want to press upon students is how not to steal, which gets pretty murky, though maybe it shouldn’t. Recently, Hyperallergic posted an article by Kevin Ferguson in which he shares his scholastic research and process for making composite images of movie stills (sum frame visualizations) because another artist is doing the exact same thing (after he did), and the gallery in which it is housed didn’t seem to care.

Jason Shulman "Fantasia". Kevin Ferguson's summed frames of "Fantasia". (Screenshot from Hyperallergic)

In the age of digital image-based forums like Instagram, Pinterest, deviant art, etc. it is getting increasingly more difficult to know if plagiarism is occurring when a student turns in their work. A portion of my studio courses is now devoted to “how to develop your own resource image”, where we get into collage-creating, digital editing, and a fly-by-night ethics course on how to use an image you like without actually ripping someone off. With various lawsuits involving Zara, Richard Prince, and Jeff Koons, what have we learned? Here is the Teaching Guide For Creating a Clean Resource, or How To Respect Your Peers:

  • No. 1: Set up a still life. (This applies to painting, drawing, photography, video, scanography, etc.)

  • No. 2: Take the photo yourself.

  • No. 3: Collage.

  • No. 4: Digitally edit.

  • No. 5: Use a different medium/material.

  • No. 6: Cite and acknowledge.

  • No. 7: Throw all care to the wind and hope the lawsuit makes you famous/successful. (Or that you are famous/succesful enough to engage in a lawsuit.)

  • No. 8: Familiarize yourself with copyright laws that deal with art/images.

  • No. 9: Familiarize yourself with copyright laws that deal with social media.

  • No. 10: Don’t be a prick.

  • No. 11: Be a prick (see No. 7.)

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