Artistic Licence on Copyright Infringement

November 14th, 2007 § 0 comments

The Guardian:

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.


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