A French court may have just set a major precedent for copyright cases involving visual art. Last week judges ruled that famous artist, Jeff Koons was guilty of plagiarism for his 1988 sculpture, Naked. The porcelain artwork is part of Koons’ Banality series and features a nude young boy and girl standing together over a spilled bouquet of flowers. The figures bear striking resemblance to Enfants, a 1975 photo taken by the late French photographer, Jean-François Bauret. The unmistakeable similarities between Naked and Enfants were first noticed in January when Bauret’s widow, Claude Bauret-Allard, was reviewing her husband’s work with a curator at the French National Library.
Jeff Koons LLC, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris were ordered by the courts to pay Bauret’s family £35,000 (around $43,000). Although Naked was not actually shown at the Pompidou, the sculpture was intended to be a part of 2014-2015 Jeff Koons retrospective but ended up becoming damaged in transit. For this reason it did not end up in the final exhibition at the Pompidou but was used in the show catalog, thus implicating the institution.
Like his contemporary, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons has built his career on appropriation. Both artists have been involved in various lawsuits concerning plagiarism and copyright issues. In 2013, the US Court of Appeals ruled in Prince’s favor. After a lower court judged that he illegally used portraits from Patrick Cariou’s book, Yes Rasta, the appeals court ruled that in fact Prince had transformed the photos enough that he was not in violation of copyright law. While Prince has come out of court largely unscathed, Koons has not always been as lucky. In fact it is the same Banality series that has gotten him into trouble before. In 1992, a court ruled that he was guilty of copyright infringement for his 1988 String of Puppies sculpture which was based on an Art Rogers photo entitled Puppies. Koons argued that his artwork was “fair use by parody” but again, the courts didn’t buy it. He was ordered to pay Rogers a large settlement and had to ship him the final edition of String of Puppies. A third sculpture in Banality, called Wild Boy and Puppy also led to a court date, during which Koons was found guilty of infringing the copyright of Odie, a character from the popular Garfield comic strip.
In a world where Instagram is king and searching for pictures on Google Images is more common than going to a library for an encyclopedia, copyright and intellectual property laws have become increasingly muddied. While fine artists are often accused of stealing from photographers, the work of visual artists is often appropriated for music videos and other forms of media. The most popular music video of 2015, Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” was almost a frame-by-frame reproduction of the work of American Light and Space artist, James Turrell. More recently, Beyoncé’s much lauded music film, Lemonade, made waves for it’s amazing art direction, much of which was culled from the work of contemporary artists. Arguably the most memorable scene of the film is the “Hold Up” music video which features Queen Bey in a gown, slo-mo sauntering down the street and banging up cars with a baseball bat. The scene is also an indisputable copy of Swiss video artist, Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All which features Rist walking in a similar manner and smashing car windows with a metal flower.
It’s a good thing that James Turrell and Pipilotti Rist aren’t French – Drake and Bey might be in trouble.
-Jasmine Williams for The Untitled Magazine