Challenging copyrights by stealing in the open

'Illegal art' exhibit brazenly samples famous music, gives away the CDs

Ideas: Intellectual Property

January 19, 2003|By Chris Nelson

It sounds like a plan for drawing hordes of screaming lawyers to your door: create compilation CDs with sampled music from the likes of the Beatles, James Brown and Johnny Cash, not to mention the voice of Dan Rather; include as many songs as possible that have already sparked legal battles; do it all without getting permission from the copyright owners; and distribute the CDs at a nationally touring art exhibition.

Oh yeah, and give the music away online for the millions of people around the globe who can't make it to the show.

So far, this operation has not sparked even a lawyer's angry voice mail, says Carrie McLaren. McLaren is curator of the exhibition, "Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age," where the potentially inflammatory CD is available free, and of its Web site,

"They know it'd be like a minefield," says McLaren, who contends that the music, visual art and video pieces in the installation are protected by the "fair use" provision in copyright law that allows for parody and commentary. The exhibition, she says, takes the potentially illegal and makes it untouchable.

Maybe she should talk with Paul McCartney.

McCartney's spokesman, Paul Freundlich, is examining the apparently unauthorized use of the Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows" on the "Illegal Art" track "Psycho of Greed" by the rap group Public Enemy.

Both Public Enemy and McLaren are violating the law by distributing copyrighted work without permission, Freundlich said. "The people that are actually doing this exhibit are just as guilty as anybody else who's pirating anybody's artwork," he said.

If true, McLaren argues, that proves her point: American copyright laws are overly restrictive and outdated. "Illegal Art," which had its debut at CBGB's 313 Gallery in New York in November, moves to Chicago later this month.

Clear infringements

The show's video section includes Brian Boyce's State of the Union, which juxtaposes images borrowed from C-Span and the children's show Teletubbies to depict President Bush as an evil sun god destroying bunnies to make way for oil wells. Todd Haynes' Superstar dramatizes Karen Carpenter's anorexia using Barbie dolls. The visual section, meanwhile, includes Ray Beldner's re-creations of famous paintings made using United States currency and Wally Wood's notorious drawing of a Disney character orgy.

All of the pieces either have run afoul of copyright owners in the past or could be expected to in the future, though lawyers disagree on just how much of the exhibit flouts the law.

Giving away entire songs on a CD and online -- including the Verve's hit "Bittersweet Symph-ony" and Corporal Blossom's "White Christmas," which interweaves versions of that song by Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and others -- is a clear infringement, some say.

The songs in the exhibition are controversial precisely because copyright owners have claimed that other artists are stealing their work by sampling it, McLaren said. "In order to really understand the song, you need to hear the whole thing," she said.

Though copyright law can make for arcane discussion, popular culture has brimmed with the subject of late. Just last Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. That law stretched copyright ownership by 20 years -- to 95 years after the author's life for work created before 1978--- allowing, for instance, the Walt Disney Co. to maintain control of characters from the 1920s such as Mickey Mouse.

Copyrighting sound

Lawyers on both sides of the issue agree that copyright owners are more likely today than in the past to sue artists who appropriate their work. "The question becomes not whether you can win the suit but whether you can survive the suit," said Edward Samuels, a New York Law School professor and author of The Illustrated Story of Copyright.

Legal worries convinced Diana Thorneycroft that she should pull several drawings from a recent exhibition in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Canadian law does not consider parody fair use. The pieces, now on display as "Foul Play" in "Illegal Art," depict dolls of familiar characters like Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson being bound or "killed" by hanging or gunshot.

John Spelich, a Disney spokesman, said the company was looking into the exhibition. A representative from News Corp., which owns The Simpsons, did not return calls.

The leader of Public Enemy, Chuck D, who has long fought restrictions on sampling, neither acknowledges nor denies that his group sampled the Beatles on "Psycho of Greed," allowing only that parts of his song and "Tomorrow Never Knows" sound strikingly similar.

"Where does it stop?" he asked. "Does a lawn mower company copyright its sound? ... I don't think you can copyright sound. You can copyright compositions. But nobody invents a sound."

McLaren, meanwhile, is still waiting to hear from lawyers intent on challenging her show or its pieces.

Lawyers could well be a boon to the project, said Jane C. Ginsburg, professor of literacy and artistic property law at Columbia Law School. "The threat of litigation certainly could have a chilling effect. On the other hand, the threat of litigation is very good PR."

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