Copyright Issues

I flipped over to Copyfight randomly today and got turned on to an article that was published in February’s Harper’s. The essay, written jointly by Susan Meiselas and Joy Garnet, deals with the image that has come to be known a “Molotov Man.”

To the right, you can see what started the debate. Susan Meiselas took the photograph–though a good portion of it is cut off in this depiction. Joy Garnet then turned part of that image into a painting. When Garnet’s painting became popular, she got a letter from Meiselas’ attorney, who asked that Meiselas be given credit as the inspiration for the painting and that Garnet seek permission every time she wanted to reproduce the painting. After a few exchanges via letters, Garnet says she was going to take the Molotov image down from her Web site, one step to avoid a potential lawsuit.

Then, she says, a funny thing happened. The Web appropriated her image, and people around the world created derivative works based on her painting (which was itself a derivative work). Let the copyright debate begin!

So Meiselas contends that the vulgarizaton of the image has robbed it of the context it once had, the context in which she photographed the actual human being. Rather than having the rich heritage that the person in the picture, the image has become a symbol for revolution in general. In a very real way the subject of the photograph has become “idolized.”

So, who owns the right to this image? That’s the legal issue behind this intellectual argument. One might say that the original creator of the original photograph owns the rights to it. But does she own the rights to the photograph alone? Or can she own the rights to all subsequent works that look like that photograph? On the other hand, does the painter own her image, since it is so clearly based on another work? Though it exists in a different medium, it is mostly the same image.

The differences are so complete as to render the two pieces of art completely different. After all, they exist in two different physical places; so they must be different, right? Well, I don’t remember much about Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but I do remember that reprinting and duplication throw a big wrench into the entire notion of intellectual property (which hasn’t ever really stood on solid ground in the first place).

What is really at stake here is I think an economic struggle, as most things are when we take them back to their roots. Who owns the right to make money off this image and its reproductions? If money wasn’t an issue, then why would there be contention? Derivative works further the artistic agenda by provoking more thought and adding innovation to the world. Derivations are good, unless they cut into someone else’s profits.

I don’t mean to come down hard on Meiselas here. She has a valid point with her argument that the image has been removed from its original context; but that is the nature of art in general, especially photography. Meiselas removed that image from its human context the moment she froze those photons on film. That piece of art ceased to have any connection with existence and became solely a piece of art and always already a reproduction.

We must remember that the photograph is not original either. It is a derivational work, based on reality.

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