Looks Are Not Everything; Professor Amy Adler's Future of Art

Looks Are Not Everything; Professor Amy Adler's Future of Art

Earlier this month, Osgoode Hall Law School welcomed Amy Adler, New York University’s Emily Kempin Professor of Law, to present on copyright and the future of art. Professor Adler is a leading scholar of art law and specializes in the legal regulation of artistic expression, sexuality and free speech. Visual artists today, as she describes, are caught in the “web of copyright” to which their disentanglement can be achieved through legal reform based on courts (i) adopting an economic-based view of the art market; and (ii) abolishing copyright protection for the visual arts.

Clearing the History

In Adler’s view, copying and imitation has always been essential to art as evidenced by the Italian Renaissance master Giogrione’s unfinished Venus painting used as a strong reference in 1538 when Titian created the Venus of Urbino. Adler claims that art has a history of innovation built on emulation. In modern times, digital technology has not only allowed for copying to become a central building block to visual art but has become a technique used by many artists, including Director X and his music video for Drake’s Hotline Bling that uses the spatial light work of American artist James Turrell. According to YouTube, the music video has been streamed over 1 billion times.

Drawing the Line

The Copyright Clause found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution empowers the United States Congress “to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” To act as a defense to copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act considers four factors when determining “fair use”, or free and legal use, of copyrighted material that is also able to advance the purposes set out in the Copyright Clause:

  1. Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole;
  4. Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In 1992, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a copyright infringement ruling against best-selling American artist Jeff Koons for basing his sculpture too closely on another artist’s photograph. The Court relied on Koons’ opinion of what the new art represented and, based on his inability to communicate a substantial difference, the Court ruled against him. In 1994, the Supreme Court introduced the term “transformative” to determine if the new work, in comparison to the existing work, “added something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message.” In a separate infringement case, Koons carefully adapted his testimony to the Court’s definition of transformation and stated, “I want the viewer to think about…those images and…gain new insight into how they affect our lives.”

The Court held that Koons’ intention was to create a new artwork and ruled in his favour.  Adler considers the Court’s definition of "transformative" to be an unreliable standard of measure because it ultimately allows legal authorities to become curators, arbitrarily deciding an artist's intention, an artwork's representation and whether the new artwork is sufficiently different than the original artwork.

Copy and Haste

The ability to select media from densely populated online content is a form of rapid curating that has become an issue for the modern artist. Adler was involved in Cariou v Prince, a landmark 1994 copyright case in the New York Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Within 30 of his own collages, American artist Richard Prince copied underlying material to varying degrees from American photographer Patrick Cariou.

Prince refused to testify in accordance with the Court’s definition of transformation, and simply stated that he did not attempt to noticeably differentiate his artwork. On appeal, the Court was unable to use Prince’s testimony as a basis for differentiation and was forced to adopt a “reasonable person” standard. By simply conducting a side-by-side comparison of each of the 30 collages, the Court concluded that 25 were sufficiently distinct but was unsure of the remaining five, ultimately remanding the insufficiently distinct collages.

Evidently, great uncertainty exists when attempting to claim that fair use progresses the arts. In response to the New York Court of Appeals’ side-by-side comparison, Adler argues the photographer Sherrie Levine’s identical reproductions of Walker Evans’ photographs could not coexist with this understanding because the artwork’s meaning transcends visual interpretation.

Redefining the Rule

Adler strongly opposes an authoritative definition of art. Not only does she believe that problems arise from an artist’s forced explanation of their artwork but also that it is inherently difficult to reduce images to digestible ideas for the general public to collectively understand or for courts to effectively rule for or against. In this view, it can be justified that an artist’s intention should be irrelevant to the meaning of their work because it is an arbitrary and ever-changing standard of measure.

For example, Andy Warhol saw his art as collaboration with everyone who viewed it and in a sense disowned authorship of his works, while the works of expressionist Jackson Pollock were inherently abstract and are publicly perceived as sharing no immediate identity with the works of others.

Multiple artists, editors or assistants contribute to multiple meanings of the work and consequently displace the responsibility of any individual contributor. Adler provides the example of an unknown editor of Nick Ut’s "The Napalm Girl" who cropped out various subjects to focus on the victims of war and, in turn, redefined the original photograph’s meaning and intent. Another example Adler provides is Shepherd Fairey’s appropriation of Mannie Garcia’s photograph of Barack Obama to create the iconic “Yes We Can” illustration. Garcia claims he did not initially recognize the original photo as his own. In Adler’s view, the law’s inability to recognize an artist’s increasing reliance on the work of others is a major source of litigation and is yet another reason to abolish copyright protection for the visual arts.

The Future of Art

Adler’s first step to effectively addressing the issue of copyright and modern art is to stop thinking of art in terms of its message or meaning and to instead think about the economic market. She believes in a modification of the fair use test that incorporates market usurpation because, when it is “art-on-art stealing,” there is no market usurpation due to market’s negligible demand for copies of original artwork. Although it is difficult for some to classify visual art as a simple commodity to be traded among the wealthy, Adler believes this is the direction the market is evolving towards.

The second step, and the more radical of the two, is to abolish copyright for the visual arts because fair use lawsuits would no longer exist. Adler believes the reason copyright protection exists is mainly utilitarian and is based on economic incentives to create ideas. From this, she concludes that the worry is not about the act of copying itself but instead the allowance of a cheap copy to monetize another’s art.

The Art of Crime

Typically, the theft, duplication and resale of other types of art such as motion pictures and sound recordings create an economic loss for the rightful owner. However, in the visual art market, Adler claims there is no market substitution between copies and authentic originals. What about moral rights? Adler answers that, in the United States, an infringement of moral rights for violating copyright only applies if an individual has used a limited edition photograph of less than 200 copies. She claims that most works of visual art do not have a re-sale value and that over 99% of visual art cannot be resold, with the exception of a small class of considerably successful artists. To incentivize the creation of art, it is important to promote the revenue generated from the first sale of an original artwork, as it is the most lucrative because the value of a copy is simply a small fraction of the first sale.

For example, Richard Prince took screenshots of multiple Instagram posts from a burlesque collective, the Suicide Girls, and turned the original screenshot into original prints that sold for $90,000 or more. Instead of taking legal action, the Suicide Girls created identical prints and tried to sell them for $90. However, because visual art is more concerned unique, authentic originals rather than duplicates, the market did not react in favor of the Suicide Girls.

To resolve this discrepancy, Adler claims that the only artists generating significant revenue from copies, although relatively a small amount, are those who are already capable of generating large amounts of revenue from their original artwork. In a sense, Richard Prince conferred money on the Suicide Girls as a result from his copying. Adler believes that this economic distribution is made possible by modern artists continuing to rely on imitating their surroundings, now virtually limitless in an interconnected and online world.

As a co-founder of a visual art collective, I agree that the use of open-source references and online images allow for greater economic prosperity. This freedom grants artists a wider degree of creativity to build their brand, the main force that drives revenue generation. Although Adler’s claims are limited in scope to visual arts and focus on the protection of commercially successful artists, the abolishment of copyright law may ultimately benefit smaller artists who rely on the copying of another artist’s work for inspiration or reference. Adler reminds us that, while unfortunate to some, the art market values the brand of an artwork's creator more than the content of the actual artwork.


Robel Sahlu is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.