A Blog About Punching People In the Face

Mike Tyson discusses copyright law

In Thoughts by Tyson on December 30, 2011 at 12:47 am

Mike Tyson has taken note of the recent case of Cariou v. Prince, a lawsuit involving the alleged theft of images for use in an art show. A federal district court judge has ruled that Richard Prince, an “appropriation artist,” stole several images from a book about Rastafairans and then used them in an exhibition without the author’s permission (see example below).

Mr. Tyson, for obvious reasons, is concerned about this ruling.

The crux of the court’s decision hinges upon the definition of “fair use,” a doctrine that allows artists to appropriate others’ ideas if it is determined that it stimulates activity in the arts for the enrichment of the public.

The fair use doctrine is intended to modify copyright law — a law so sacred that it is written into the U.S. Constitution. At its core, copyright laws are designed to incentivize creativity by assuring that the creator might get paid for his creation without having to worry about someone stealing his idea. Fair use modifies the blanket prohibition against stealing by carving out certain exceptions — including when an appropriated work “adds value to the original.”

The doctrine was most famously employed when the Supreme Court ruled that 2 Live Crew was protected under the fair use doctrine when it parodied Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” with a song by the same name.

Fair use acknowledges that creativity is derivative. But the presumption that creativity may be, in part, driven profit, makes this more than a philosophical issue. In an effort to draw the line somewhere, courts have sought to determine whether an appropriated work “transforms” the original. Of course, what constitutes a “transformation” is tricky — after all, by cutting and pasting the picture above, Mr. Tyson “transformed” it. At the very least then, the law requires that the appropriated work reference — either explicitly or implicitly — the original.

The problem for Mr. Prince in the instant case is that, by his own admission, he was not even attempting to reference Caricou’s work. Instead, the images were co-opted to explore Prince’s own ideas for a movie in which early 20th century lesbians take over a hotel on St. Bart’s. “So what are four lesbians…doing on St. Bart’s?” Mr. Prince was asked during a deposition.  “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said. “That’s what I do, I make things up.”

Mr. Prince’s lawyers have countered that the real test is whether the result of the appropriation is new art — and on this score he is surely correct that at least some people thought that this was what Mr. Prince was doing. One of Prince’s appropriated pieces sold for $2.5 million, while Caricou’s book currently sells for $29.95 on Amazon.

In the end, Mr. Tyson believes that the federal district court was correct in its ruling. Putting a urinal on a pedestal might be art, but the artist must still pay for the urinal. The court in Caricou determined that Mr. Prince’s artwork hurt the market value of the sale of Caricou’s prints — and whatever the truth of that determination, the theory still holds. The fact that Mr. Prince grossed some $10 million for his images says less about the value of his work than it does about the excessive wealth accumulated by the collectors. Paying millions for widely available (and nearly identical) photographs proves that the art world is dominated by mentally retarded lemmings. Mr. Tyson will crush them.

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