Last month the John Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law held its annual symposium. This year the topic was the intersection of art and law. There were a number of great papers examining how art and law overlap. I contributed a short talk on how the law ends up defining art, arguing the legal and the arts community need to recognize the important role law plays in defining the limits of conceptual art when legal disputes arise. I’ve posted the short draft online here: (How Law Defines Art), and I’d love to hear any reactions.
Defining art is both hard and subjective. But in lots of contexts the law must arrive at a just solution to hard and subjective questions. The art world (which includes artists, buyers, art lovers, art historians, and art writers generally) has largely neglected the task of defining artworks. This neglect has crept into legal disputes as contemporary art has become more conceptual. It has loosened the limits of aesthetics, form, function, and composition. This makes crafting a definition even more challenging. Yet the Law has an important part to play in resolving art disputes. In doing so courts end up defining art. They do not set out to do so, and in fact they do all they can to avoid acting as art critics. But paradoxically this creates inconsistent judicial reasoning and leads to under-reasoned opinions. The solution offered here, is to acknowledge this critical function, and encourage courts to engage with the visual arts community, and for the arts community to engage back.
Recently, in Cariou v. Prince, the Second Circuit held that a series of photographic collages described as “appropriation art” qualified as fair use despite the fact that both the collage and the original photographs served similar expressive purposes, albeit in very different manners. The court adopted the broadest definition of transformation to date, which, though formally reliant on the language in Campbell, relaxed the requirements for transformativeness such that a work need only show “new expression, meaning, or message.”” Because of the variety of prior definitions and the broad language in Campbell, the Cariou rule is not precluded by precedent. However, such a broad formulation blurs the line between a transformative work and the right to prepare derivative works under 17 U.S.C. § 106(2), and the court does not provide an aesthetically neutral method of distinguishing between the two. Unless and until the statute is changed, future courts should resolve the tension in a way that both preserves the derivative work right and precludes value judgments of new art forms.
Cariou v. Prince, 714 F.3d 694 (U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit 2013).