Richard Prince is in copyright trouble again, Hrag Vartanian reports.
The artist, who is represented by the powerful lawyer Larry Gagosian, received a cease-and-desist letter from the Seattle-based photographer Donald Graham after Prince reproduced one of Graham’s photographs without permission in a 2014 gallery show.
Prince is an appropriation artist, meaning that he takes the work of others and reapproprates it into something new with a different meaning (see: Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans series). But Prince is a little different — it can be unclear whether Prince is really making a comment on others’ works or just taking them without attribution.
Another artist, Patrick Cariou, famously sued Prince for reusing his photos of Rasafarians in a 2008 show at Gagosian Gallery. The case wound its way up the court system for several years. In the end, a judge decided that most, but not all, of Prince’s works were protected by the fair use clause in copyright law, and Prince settled with Cariou earlier this year.
In October 2014, Prince had another show at Gagosian. He once again used appropriated images of Rastafarians, but this time, he reproduced large version instagram posts from other people. And this is where we fall down a copyright rabbit hole.
Prince made artwork based on Graham’s photograph, which he exhibited and presumably sold for many thousands of dollars more than Graham would ever get for the same photo. That’s why why Prince got the cease-and-desist.
But Prince didn’t take the work from Graham. He took from an Instagram user, @rastajay92. In the artwork reproduced for the Prince show at Gagosian, Prince had commented on the Instagram post “Canal Zinian da lam jam,” though the comment has since been taken down. This it what it looks like now:
A photo posted by Jay Kirton A.K.A Ka Assante (@rastajay92) on May 5, 2014 at 1:48pm PDT
The problem with this Instagram post is it doesn’t attribute the work of Graham. Looking at it, you can’t tell where it’s from. Prince could very well argue that he didn’t know Graham took the photo. He appropriated @rastajay92’s photo. In an artistic sense that would make the Prince piece much less interesting, but for the moment that’s neither here nor there.
This is where it gets really complicated: Graham’s image on Instagram didn’t originate with @rastajay92. He clearly attributes where he took it from, and it wasn’t Graham. The comment notes that the photo is a “repost @indigoochild.” Sure enough, by searching through @indigoochild’s feed, you find the image back in February 2014:
A photo posted by AMCK MODEL (@indigoochild) on Feb 8, 2014 at 9:55am PST
The original post by @indigoochild doesn’t have any text associated with it. It would appear (although who knows), that this is actually the person who first appropriated Graham’s photo. But you never know. It’s possible that @indigoochild took this photo from someone else, and didn’t attribute it to them, rather than taking it straight from the artist.
Prince’s Instagram show is all about how normal it has become to take and repost a photo, with a continuous cycle of non-attribution. Sampling, with or without notes as to where images came from, is quotidian.
And the fact that Prince got a cease-and-desist letter, but the Instagram users who originally appropriated the work did not (to our knowledge), actually makes Prince’s work much more interesting. It makes it art, instead of just a dumb Instagram show. No one cares about sampling on the web until someone makes a boatload of money off of it. In some sense that seems fair, but is it really?
The internet is changing the way that society thinks about image appropriation. It might not be intuitive to someone who grew up with screenshot + paste that attribution is important. The notion of authorship is disappearing, particularly with images, because anyone can post any photo to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram. No one asks who took the photo. Why should anyone think that information is important?
(Tangentially: Tumblr prompts users for a source when posting a quote, but not when uploading an image.)
This is anathema to the pro-copyright community, and really scary for the legion of professional photographers who make a living through authorship of images. It’s in many ways worse than what illegal downloading did to the music industry, because it says that not only should images be free, but they should also be authorless.
Fixing this might be as easy as platforms requiring authorship information in order to post images. But no one asks for that information. So we don’t give it.
And thus continues to steady creep to the complete annihilation of the author.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.