Patrick Cariou, the French photographer who recently won his copyright lawsuit against Richard Prince and Gagosian Gallery, seems like a decent guy. He underwent a four-year, $70,000 legal nightmare just to protect his creative work. I applaud his stamina and honesty.
I'm an artist and have been involved in an online debate with many colleagues about the case. Like Prince and Gagosian, many younger artists take the cavalier, Internet-age approach that if they have access to it — music, art, information, images — it is now free. I've heard them go so far as to say it's an "absolute truth" that access without gates, alarms, codes, locks makes images free. It's a bewildering standard because it lacks all standards.
The second misconception is that the decision is an "aesthetic" decision of Cariou over Prince. This erroneous idea is voiced as anger toward the judge for, in their words, preferring Cariou's work to Prince's. But the decision, which I found very informative, simple to understand, and grounded in precedent, doesn't deal with that at all. It deals, quite simply, with the illegal use of Mr. Cariou's work.
The most illuminating objection I hear is the cry that the judge is "censoring" Richard Prince. This argument comes without consideration of the law or ethical concerns, and reflects a general ignorance of what a copyright protects. The court's decision is an appropriate legal remedy, to deliver to Cariou — whose body of work (consisting of 41 images) was illegally reproduced, sold, and exploited by Prince — the derivative works to be disposed of as he sees fit. If Prince had paid for the images, gotten written permission, negotiated a settlement instead of dragging this poor artist through four years of trial costs and doubts, Prince and Gagosian could sit on the proceeds of their own labor. The court is in effect saying that the proceeds and works are the result of Cariou's labor, not Prince's.
Too many art professionals are calling for copyright law eradication to justify their practices — but I don't hear them crying, "I want my work reproduced without controls, earning millions of dollars for pirating companies; I want no credit and will delight in losing my hard-won pre-existing show commitments and book revenues, so please strike down all laws that might prevent this happy outcome." Their plea to dismantle copyright law to validate their derivative practices speaks to the ethical quandary within their "appropriation" school they themselves don't want to face.
Wayne Coe is a performance artist working in black sand on the streets of New York. His "ManhattanSandPaintingProject" catalogs his two years of installations charting gay film theaters' use of film hyperbole within contemporary fine-art marketing. The opinions expressed here are the author's own.