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Have the SuicideGirls trumped Richard Prince?

30 May 2015

A 21st-century response to copyright infringement

Appropriation artists are becoming increasingly familiar with copyright infringement proceedings. The claimants in such cases are frequently photographers or artists whose income is dwarfed by their litigation opponents – commercial art market darlings such as Richard Prince. Prince (and Gagosian) famously defended US infringement proceedings over the artist’s ‘Canal Zone’ series in a claim brought by French photographer Patrick Cariou. Prince appealed the first instance decision which found that he had infringed Cariou’s copyright. A host of art world heavyweights (including the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Guggenheim) filed amici curiae briefs in support of the appellants.  The appeal court held that the ‘fair use’ defence was available to Prince for 25 of the works, but remanded five for full trial. Unsurprisingly, the case was eventually settled out of court without any judgment on whether the remaining five images were infringements.

While, photographer Katrijn Van Giel was successful in her copyright infringement claim against Luc Tuymans in a Belgian court in early 2015, the costs (time, economic and emotional) involved in pursuing litigation remain understandably off-putting for artists seeking redress against unwelcomed copying by other artists.

Revelations this week demonstrate that Richard Prince has not been adversely effected by his past brush with infringement accusations, and remains willing to push the boundaries of appropriation art. Last year, Gagosian Gallery, New York exhibited a series of enlarged screenshots of images which Prince had found on Instagram.  Among these were photographs sourced from an account held by the SuicideGirls – ‘celebrating alternative pin-up girls’ – the use of which was apparently neither authorised nor licenced. According to the Guardian, an image from Prince’s Instagram series is reported to have sold for $90,000 at the preview of Frieze New York at the beginning of May this year.

At this point, the copyright holder of the Instagram images reproduced by Prince would not be ill advised to send a ‘cease and desist’ letter, expressing an intention to bring a claim for copyright infringement. That is, if one were feeling litigious. Missy Suicide (her Twitter handle) and the SuicideGirls decided to do things differently. They countered Prince’s commercially lucrative act of appropriation with aplomb and irony; producing reproductions of Prince’s reproductions, and selling them for $90 each with all proceeds going to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The response by the SuicideGirls is both creative and effective. While it does not settle the score economically, the response has rewarded the collective and Missy Suicide with increased publicity and support. This naturally rides on the commercial standing of their interlocutor, yet their response also manages to trump Prince’s obvious and uninspiring attempt to provoke questions about the use and/or reproduction of images in the digital age. It draws out broader debates of freedom of expression or the effectiveness of copyright, as it stands, to protect an artist’s economic and moral interests in their work, regardless of their standing on the commercial art market.

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