On Derivative Art and Law

Robert J. Lang's creation takes a munch break at MoMA

In my latest on Hyperallergic,  I gave Robert J. Lang the mic and he gave us a lesson in the history, diversity, and multiple uses of origami! He also comments very briefly on his current lawsuit against artist Sarah Morris whom he accuses of copyright infringement.

I have been following copyright infringement cases for a while now and find it very interesting that people tend to predict case outcomes based on their personal opinions about copyrights, or the individual artists, or the genres of art involved. Rarely do I see discussions about derivative art, copyrights, and lawsuits that actually deal with the legal issues that are involved.

The Lang v Sarah Morris case is a very good example. People who have taken a strong position in favor of derivative art are predicting that Morris cannot lose. Others see this as clear case of infringement and are rooting for the origami artists. But few seem to understand the legal terms they are using to support their emotional arguments. And fewer still seem to understand that the courts don’t care what sort of art you like.

The fact is, it can be pretty hard to predict the outcomes of these cases without a good look at the depositions and the court records. And arguments about the court’s decisions look pretty silly when they misunderstand terms like “transformative” or mistake the word “derivative” for an insult. These legal terms are too often reacted to in a naive and emotional way even by some who set themselves up as experts on the subject.

I will follow up here in a week or so, with an essay about the legal issues involved in these cases, and how they are misunderstood by the public.