Sensitive Issues in Copyright

Copyright – Issues of Integrity

There are many other examples of artworks being copied in ways that can be seen as detracting from the integrity of the original artwork. Many of these examples are found in advertisements. It is interesting to consider how the reproduction of artworks in advertisements influences the way the artwork is perceived. For example, the frequent use of some images, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which has been used to advertise a wide range of products including toothpaste, sanitary products and house paint, can change the viewers’ understanding and appreciation of this work. It is debateable whether this is necessarily a negative thing.

Copyright – Law in Different Contexts

Copyright law is based on the idea of copyright being personal property that can be owned and sold. It is interesting to consider issues associated with this idea in relation to different cultural situations. For example, in Aboriginal cultures the ownership of images and the right to use them is often related to cultural and family traditions and rights. This might include culturally sensitive material such as sacred images, or designs that according to cultural tradition should only be used by individuals who have special rights to use them.

Sensitive Moral Issues – Aboriginal Tea towel copied from cultural paintings

‘This is my father’s painting and this is my father’s painting. This design of spears is my father’s name. And here is my painting, and here is my painting. And all of these are my tribe’s stories. The white man has stolen them. Who could do this? How could this happen?’ It’s hard to explain to Wandjuk that the manufacturer wouldn’t even have thought about it. After all, they’re only bark paintings by boongs, not real paintings by proper artists. The tea-towel tycoon wouldn’t realise that this is far more than a simple breach of copyright, far more than a minor act of vandalism. He couldn’t know that this cheap cloth could tear the fabric of a unique and vulnerable society. ‘For three years, I’ve been unable to paint,’ Wandjuk continues, ‘I did not know why. Now I understand. These men have stolen my spirit.’

Tribal magic on a cheap tea-towel. A clumsy, unintended blasphemy has robbed Wandjuk of his hereditary gifts. The idea of an artist owning an image and controlling the way it is used is also problematic within the context of postmodern art practice, which often involves artists borrowing or appropriating images freely from the work of other artists or from popular culture.

Copyright – Sensitive Images

Images might be sensitive for reasons other than culture. For example, when creating his work Crush, the artist, Christopher Langton, approached the Transport Accident Corporation (TAC) for permission to use images of car accidents, but this was refused. This highlights the fact that artists often need to consider ethical as well as legal issues when using sensitive images.

Whilst not a copyright concern, other issues of moral and ethical issues often arise due to the appropriateness of subject matter and imagery. In 2008, a Bill Henson exhibition was the subject of a police investigation after it emerged that it contained photos of naked children. In defence of himself, Henson said:

“The greatness of art comes from ambiguities, which is another way of saying it stops us from knowing what to think. It redeems us from a world of moralism and opinionation and claptrap.”

The following links outline the different responses to Henson’s 2008 exhibition.


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