“Fuck you, sue me.”
According to three artists and a copyright attorney who spoke on a South By South West panel Tuesday, this is the mentality of big companies that use the creations of others with out permission.
Graffiti artist Ahol Sniffs Glue joined film artists Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva of Borscht Corp, as well as Andrew Gerber, a copyright and trademark attorney, to discuss artist rights and “corporate thievery”.
Ahol is known for his signature street art which often depicts abstract eyes. He first had to confront the legal system in relation to his art when American Eagle used one of his murals as the backdrop of an entire clothing campaign.
Since then, the two parties have settled the case, but Gerber said situations like this are why it is important for artists to complete the copyright registration process for their creations.
“It’s really critical to talk to lawyers and register your works so you can fight back when companies do things like that,” Gerber said.
Gerber believes the visual arts industry should be protected by laws similar to the ones that apply for music. When someone wants to cover another artist’s song, they are legally allowed to do so after purchasing a mechanical license.
The attorney said appropriation artists, who transform the work of other creators to provide commentary or an artistic concept, should be required to pay license fees when they feature other people’s work in their pieces.
“So let’s say I want to make fun of a Taylor Swift song, for example,” Gerber said. “I don’t need Taylor Swift’s permission to do that. I can actually get a mechanical license, pay her a license fee and create a cover. I think something like that might actually work in the visual arts world and I think it’s necessary.”
When asked if he gets upset when his murals are painted over, Ahol said his years of being an artist have taught him about how people come to value his work.
“I’ve come to realize that if you’re not getting paid to paint a mural, people are not going to have that financial attachment to it and they’re not going to protect it and they’re not going to embrace it,” Ahol said. “When people spend money out of their pocket and they pay you for a piece of work, they’re going to treasure it as a piece of work that they paid for.”
In Gerber’s experience, when legal letters are sent to companies or individuals who are infringing copyright, the guilty party often asks what the big deal is and who is it hurting.
“A lot of times we ask for license fee, just basic license fee because they should have paid us a license fee in the first place,” Gerber said. “We face a lot of resistance to that, and I always have to think of this picture.”
A photo of a small, cluttered cubicle appeared on the screen.
“That’s Ahol’s cubicle three years ago, when he was working a day job before he became an artist full time,” Gerber said. “And it’s really meaningful. It’s license fees that are dedicated to his art that allow him to stay out of that cubicle and create art full time. That’s what’s important.”