Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Copyright and London Art Galleries

Since I am in London at the moment, and saw an article by the famous Canadian Cory Doctorow in the British online Guardian Unlimited about an exhibit currently running at the British National Portrait Gallery. Mr. Doctorow notes that the artists in the exhibit made quite free (in both meanings of that term) use of others' works. In the U.S., such uses would likely be transformative, and certainly so after the Blanch v. Koons case. He then notes that there is a ban at the Gallery on the taking of photographs, which he appears to find inconsistent with the art work itself. But almost all art galleries have such bans, and there is nothing transformative about taking a snapshot of a transformative work.

Here is an excerpt from the article, which also notes the British rights in typography and layout:

The excellent programme for Pop Art Portraits, the current exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery, has a lot to say about the pictures hanging on the walls and the diverse source material the artists used to produce their provocative works. Apparently they cut up magazines, copied comic books, drew trademarked cartoon characters like Minnie Mouse, reproduced covers from Time magazine, made ironic use of a cartoon Charles Atlas, painted over iconic photos of James Dean and Elvis Presley - and that's just in the first of seven rooms. The programme describes the aesthetic experience conjured up by these transmogrified icons of high and low culture. Celebrated pop artists including Larry Poons, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol created these images by nicking the work of others, without permission, and transforming it to make statements and evoke emotions never countenanced by the original creators. Despite this, the programme does not say a word about copyright. Can you blame the authors? A treatise on the way that copyright and trademarks were - had to be - trammelled to make these works could fill volumes. Reading the programme, you can only assume that the curators' message about copyright is that where free expression is concerned, the rights of the creators of the original source material must take a back seat to those of the pop artists. There is, however, another message about copyright in the National Portrait Gallery: it is implicit in the "No Photography" signs prominently displayed throughout its rooms, including one by the entrance to the Pop Art Portraits exhibition. These signs are not intended to protect the works from the depredations of camera flashes (otherwise they would read "No Flash Photography"). No, the ban on pictures is meant to safeguard the copyright of the works hung on the walls - a fact that every member of staff I asked instantly confirmed. Indeed, it seems every square centimetre of the National Portrait Gallery is under some form of copyright. I wasn't even allowed to photograph the "No Photographs" sign. A member of staff explained that the typography and layout of the signs was itself copyrighted.

6 comments:

Molly Kleinman said...

Thanks for the link - it's a good article. But I'm pretty sure Cory is Canadian.

Anonymous said...

The ban on photography in some galleries has nothing to do with copyright. Galleries showing 19th century and older art ban photography because they want the exclusive right to peddle copies of the artworks on ashtrays, posters, etc. in their gift stores.

Neill Levy
Chatsworth CA

Fred von Lohmann said...

Cory's Canadian. I know he'd want the world to know -- he's a proud Torontan!

William Patry said...

Thanks for the correction Fred. It was either you or the other Torontans on Google's legal staff who would have pointed it out. I regard myself as half Torontan, as both my grandfather and father hail from there.

Nathanael said...

"But almost all art galleries have such bans for reasons which may or may not have to do with copyright."

Nonsense. There are no legitimate reasons for banning non-flash photography of uncopyrighted works in an art gallery. I challenge you to name one.

Neill Levy wrote in an earlier comment: "Galleries showing 19th century and older art ban photography because they want the exclusive right to peddle copies of the artworks on ashtrays, posters, etc. in their gift stores." But that "exclusive right" is a literal description of "copyright"! If galleries are trying to create an illegal pseudo-copyright, through photography bans, one which violates the term restrictions on copyright, that is *entirely* illegitimate. That sort of stuff is why the Statute of Anne was passed.

William Patry said...

Nathanael,you apparently haven't looked into the history of the issue. In the United States, long before flash photography, museums were rightly concerned that permitting people to take photographs of works would turn an unpublished work of art into a published work of art, and absent a copyright notice on the work of art -- something artists didn't want to to -- the work would lose protection. We have court cases on this issue and scholarly commentary. Not nonsense at all.