By Rebecca Cleman
August 13, 2010

There are probably still a few Emily Dickinsons and Henry Dargers holed up with their secret creations out there in the world, but more and more artists are working in a public realm these days. This is definitely true when artists make something and post it on the Internet, and doubly true when that creation samples sounds and images. Appropriation has become a familiar creative impulse, rather than a new idiom as it was for Pablo Picasso in Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc (1914).

Unlike Picasso’s integration of wallpaper and newsprint, appropriated media now involves some behind-the-scenes considerations. A starting point is usually copyright law. There are two sides to this coin: an artist might think of copyright as a form of protection, or as something that impedes creativity. In practice, copyright is a balance between a personal interest and a social one.

The Internet is a heated global arena for copyright issues, bringing people from all over the world to play the game by shared rules. The implementation of new copyright regulations specific to the Internet and information technologies, such as the 1996 WIPO Copyright Treaty and the 1998 Digital Millineum Copyright Act, have offered increased protection, possibly at the cost of “fair use” exceptions.

In the U.S., the four fair use factors provide a useful guideline to artists on what constitutes permissible sampling or borrowing. This might sound like a creative fence, but knowing about fair use is empowering. One of my favorite examples of this is Paul Slocum’s You’re Not My Father (2007), in which the artist extracts a scene from the family drama Full House and layers the audio from the original over a series of re-enactments.

Artists I’ve encountered tend to be fearful of copyright, assuming there are fixed draconian rules about how many seconds of appropriation are allowed. I’ve also encountered artists known for their use of appropriation who in turn are stingy about others borrowing from them.

More philosophically, what the concept of fair use underscores is that works of appropriation don’t happen in isolation. It implies a common ground for respecting the rights of creators while enabling others to build upon and comment on what’s being created around them. Artists should consider both sides of copyright, and research elective alternatives, like Creative Commons licenses, that make the process of copyrighting less of a “one size fits all” proposition. The very word copyright might seem like a speed bump on the highway of free expression—but artists knowing more about it will only strengthen the creative community at large.

August 22, 2010 8:08 PM
Thanks for the links.
August 14, 2010 2:33 AM
Copyright regulations can serve as an artist's concept protection when working within a larger process, such as, a park in development. Also, copyrights should be provided to protect grant proposals written by the artist. Many communities do not provide legal protection for the artist and their grants acquisitions. The logistics laid out within an accepted grant proposal for the installation can be picked up at a later date by another artist and the grant funds provided for the initial proposal can be reallocated to other installations in-the-name-of-art.

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