Friday, June 02, 2006

Can You Copyright Art?

Interesting article in yesterday's NYTimes about a lawsuit in which Dale Chihuly, the world-famous glass artist, is suing two of his former employees for copyright infringement. He's saying their glass copies his work. Chihuly's works are world famous, but he himself hasn't blown glass in over 25 years due to injuries. So are they his? The Times, and the art world, don't even ask that question. He designs the glass pieces, someone else executes them, it's his art. Personally, I think this is a legitimate question. Can it be art, when someone else mass-produces it for you?

That said, I love Chihuly's work. I saw his "Seaforms" show at the Smithsonian back in the 80s and was blown away. Now I look for his work in museums and galleries. My last sighting was the chandelier at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London last fall:

This suit is about the secondary question of whether Chihuly can enjoin other artists from producing work similar to his. It doesn't seem like a close call to me; Chihuly should lose. You can't trademark a process. And he doesn't even execute the pieces he claims to have made. How can he copyright something someone else makes? For real artists, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; all art begins somewhere. Can Bob Dylan sue Ben Harper? Should Balanchine have sued Baryshnikov? Corot, Monet? No. I'll be interested in how this suit comes out. Will they go to trial (shoot out at the OK Corral) or will someone blink?

NYTimes: Glass Artists Face Off in Court

SEATTLE, May 31 — As an ever-moving maestro in the world where fine art and commerce converge, Dale Chihuly is perhaps the world's most successful glass artist.


Mr. Chihuly has sued two glass blowers, including a longtime collaborator, for copyright infringement, accusing them of imitating his signature lopsided creations, and other designs inspired by the sea.


"Just because he was inspired by the sea does not mean that no one else can use the sea to make glass art," said Bryan Rubino, the former acolyte named in the suit who worked for Mr. Chihuly as a contractor or employee for 14 years. "If anything, Mother Nature should be suing Dale Chihuly."

The suit, rare in art circles, offers a sometimes unflattering glimpse at how high-powered commercial artists like Mr. Chihuly work. The two glass blowers say that he has very little to do with much of the art, and that he sometimes buys objects and puts the Chihuly name on them, a contention that Mr. Chihuly strongly denies.

He acknowledges that he has not blown glass for 27 years,
dating from a surfing accident that cost him the full range of shoulder motion, an injury that struck three years after he had lost sight in his left eye in a traffic accident.

Still, Mr. Chihuly said, he works with sketches, faxes and through exhortation. Nothing with his name on it ever came from anyone but himself, he said.

Nice analogy by Rubino's lawyer:

Mr. Rubino's lawyer, Scott Wakefield, said Mr. Chihuly was in essence seeking a monopoly over a huge field of art.

"If the first guy who painted Madonna and Child had tried to copyright it," Mr. Wakefield said, "half of the Louvre would be empty."

From Holsten Galleries Dale Chihuly page:

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