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Art Pot x Law Review: Copyright and the Printing Press

Copyright and Creative Development - A Turbulent Relationship

Written by: Paola Córdova

Intellectual property is an issue that influences and affects the lives of many, with its theft being a problem that affects creators of all kinds to date. Now more than ever, the availability of content through the internet for anyone ranging from artists to small business owners has facilitated content distribution, but also exposed their work to the possibility of it being stolen.

Copyright (one of the most prominent types of IP) in the world of art is a heavily complex matter, one that is connected to the interest of artists everywhere. In its essence, it is all about the rights granted to the artist, ensuring that they can profit off of their work. They can control the way their art is used for a limited period of time, setting a framework for the way their work is employed elsewhere. In the UK this period lasts usually from the lifetime of the creator and then 70 years after their death, and in the case of an artwork this copyright can be passed on from a person or organization onto others. You are under no obligation to register or pay a fee for the copyright itself as it is automatically granted to the creator after it has been made. In certain cases, internationally, these same rights can be protected under the Berne Convention, which though prominent now, has existed since 1887.

Going back historically, however, copyright law itself has had a very long history of changing over the years, placing the role of the author and creator at a central point of moral and ethical discussion. From the creation of the Stationer’s Company monopoly in the Britain of the Tudor era and the mass suppression and censorship that it entailed, one can observe copyright as an issue of potential negative impact, and a focus on the owner of the copyright rather than on protecting the work of the creator. The author’s individuality becomes more central to the equation following the Statute of Anne, passed in the early 18th century, an issue that remained fragmented until international accords were reached on the matter. Up to date, the role of the author is still a point of polemic discussion.

The role of technology, additionally, has been equally important to consider in relation to this changing perception of the creator and their place in owning things ranging from works of art to written literature, and beyond. Starting way before any of the sophisticated means of communication available in the 20th century was the invention of the movable type, which made the copying of work a simpler task than having to write an entire text by hand. Following this was the creation of the printing press and its popularization in the 15th and 16th centuries, in turn making it difficult to control who profited off of texts that were constantly being copied. An entirely new market of readers came into the picture and there were a myriad of individuals looking to make money off of the new opportunity. Several authors and their families asked for exclusive printing privileges of certain works, like in the instance of Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer and his wife’s acquiring of rights over printing his work following his death in 1528.

The development of the print aside from making literature far more accessible to every individual also allowed for art to become more commonplace. Playing cards with images carved on wood, intaglio, etc. were the norm in modern day Germany, Italy, and France. Their popularity prompted artists to place signatures on their plates the way they would on their paintings in order to signal the authenticity of their work. Today, as these prints are unearthed, some initials have become very famous but very little is known of many printmakers who were famous back in the day. The example of Albrecht Dürer remains quite relevant when discussing the issue of intellectual property, seeing as his dispute with Marcantonio Raimondi (famous Italian Renaissance artist) led to the first art specific intellectual property law ever brought to trial over a forged signature. The conclusion reached in court was that Raimondi would be able to continue making copies of the prints so long as he did not forge the maker’s mark that was particular to Dürer. Needless to say, he was not very content with the decision that the court arrived upon.

The relationship between artists and the people who copy their work however has varied enormously, seeing as certain figures have relied on copyists to popularize images that they created among the public. Michelangelo and Raphael amongst others are present in the prints he recreated, something that, during his lifetime in the 16th century he was deeply praised for by his peers and critics. Today, artists like Jeff Koons have popularized several images through kitschy figurines and collages whilst getting into problems with copyright with artists like Andrea Blanch and Art Rogers.

There are instances even in which copyright has been used and abused against the better interests of the many. The main example that springs to mind is designer Isabel Marant’s usage of Mexican Oaxacan indigenous patterns in the “tribal without being too literal” sense. Certain reports inform that the legal team behind the brand issued a cease and desist notice to the Mixe people alerting them of the immediate need to stop selling goods that looked anything like the designs that Isabel Marant was selling. Exploitative companies with a great deal of power based around the world have appropriated and copyrighted work that has not been created by them but rather used to make profits without consideration.

As the printing press and movable print have moved on to a great variety of mediums to show or sell an artwork, concerns of intellectual property have gained multiple new connotations and concerns to consider upon their distribution. The layered issue of copyright and the positive role it has in protecting the work of creators but the concern as to how far it is appropriate to take restrictions imposed by it show just how delicate the balance of protecting intellectual property might be. Accessibility and democratic access should be the greatest concerns while discussing these issues, and the world of art, which can occasionally be rather exclusive, has not done the best job at doing it exactly. One can only hope that copyright like anything else continues to protect those who need it most instead of solely hegemons.



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