In light of a recent lawsuit brought against Richard Prince for copyright infringement related to his use of Patrick Cariou’s photographs of Rastafarians, without permission, in a series of collage and painting works, The New York Times published “Apropos Appropriation,” a take on the situation by Randy Kennedy. Prince’s defence rested on the idea of fair use, a clause in copyright law that allows the use of “someone else’s material for certain purposes, especially if the result transforms the thing used.” This is the mechanism that allows for parody and critique, which implies that the new work that results from an exercise of fair use should “relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back to, the original work.” In the particular case of Prince, this is not obviously the case (his justification for using the images amounted the fact that he was compelled by them, not that he aimed to mount some sort of constructive critique around the images proper), but should this lack of theoretical engagement with the appropriated work be a limit on fair use? What is the purpose of copyright law? Is the sole purpose to secure financial gain (assuming there is any gain to be made), or is it also in the service of ego? Art lawyer Virginia Rutledge’s suggestion in The New York Times article that “the problem facing the art world was as much a ‘cultural attribution crisis’ as a legal crisis and that the problem could be at least partly addressed by cultivating a stronger climate of simple acknowledgement and credit” seems to point toward the potential that copyright is as much an appeasement of individual pride as anything else. So, what is the idea of authorship in service of? Is it chiefly a means of stoking one’s sense of self-satisfaction and social regard? Why do we so maniacally attach our names to things, or insist that others do so, or get so bent out of shape when they do not?


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