Last week the New York Times reported on the recent New York ruling on the work of modern artist Richard Prince, which has sent a wave of nervousness and uncertainty through the artistic community, as well as through the contemporary museums and galleries which showcase their work. The judge in this particular case ruled that Prince, by using photographs of Rastafarians without consent of the original photographers or their publishers in his paintings and collages, had infringed on their copyrights and plagiarized their intellectual property. Prince — or more specifically, his legal team — contends that the works are usable in his work under the fair use clause, because he alters them and enhances their value through the sale of his works (one of which sold for $2.5 million).
David LaChapelle recently sued pop singer Rihanna, claiming that she had copied his work no fewer than eight times in the video for her song ‘S&M’. The matter was settled out of court. Fashion is not immune to such situations, either. The ‘theft’ by the Harry Potter film franchise of Alexander McQueen’s Peacock Dress was widely reported on, and the McQueen label was itself sued by Hell’s Angels over the late designer’s winged skull jewellery. More recently, Christian Louboutin sued Yves St Laurent for manufacturing shoes with a red sole, a trait Louboutin had trademarked in 2006; and Louis Vuitton is suing Warner Brothers Studios over the fake Louis Vuitton bag in ‘The Hangover Part II’.
In the United States it is extremely difficult to patent a garment, leaving designers and design houses only their trademarks protected. Johanna Blakley argued at TEDxUSC in April 2010 that this actually fostered innovation and creativity through sharing within the fashion industry, however she also mentions that Diane von Furstenberg and the CFDA are trying to reverse this litigation to enable them to protect their designs from piracy.
The Richard Prince article asks the important question: how much appropriation of imagery is too much? When does sharing become stealing? With so many museums beginning to show more fashion, and so many designers beginning to create pieces exclusively for museum collections, what is the level of responsibility to be expected from the galleries and museums which show modern art or fashion? Should they be held accountable for whether or not a particular design or artwork infringes on the work of another artist or designer, or should that be handled within the fields themselves? As teachers of fashion design, history, or theory, do you find copyrights regarding images and designs to be an impediment to the teaching process, or an important way to teach your students about intellectual property rights?
Please share your thoughts.