LivingArts: Public Art vs. The Internet Round 2

In my last blog post I discussed the impact of the internet on artists working in the public sphere. I was mainly concerned with the unauthorized use of artists’ work and how this phenomenon can extend the life of the artwork in some cases. Artists post their work online because it makes it accessible to everyone with internet access; the drawback is that it makes their work accessible to everyone with internet access and artists can fall victim to deliberate acts of plagiarism.

All an artist has is the body of work they have created. This is what an artist’s career is built on and how they secure their ability to support themselves. So what happens when an artist suspects someone is copying their work and infringing on their intellectual copyright?

Last fall I had an experience when a colleague tipped me off to an artist in Europe who was creating a performance that appeared uncannily like one of my projects. Now I believe in the zeitgeist of our times and that there is the potential for similar works to be created by more than one artist. In this case, the language the artist used to describe and promote their work online was nearly indistinguishable to the language I used in my promotional material. The piece in question is a large scale performance titled Dance of the Cranes, which has been performed a number of times (see video here), starting with Nuit Blanche Toronto in 2009.

I am a reasonable man, and I do not claim to own the idea of using heavy machinery to perform a complex dance. I recognize that there are numerous artists that have come before me that have worked in this genre, and some non-artists who have also worked in this vein. After I investigated this other artist who had titled their performance very similarly to mine and whose language and artistic approach was too close for comfort, I decided to take action.

I am not going to give a blow by blow account of what transpired in my exchanges with the artist’s agents or my conversations with various lawyers. Two things did become apparent: the other artist was aware of my original performance and they had seen it on the internet; and because they are in another country, any legal action would be a futile.

Several lawyers I consulted agreed that I had a case based on current international conventions governing copyright. The same lawyers also agreed that legal action would be ridiculously expensive. The first step in any copyright or intellectual property case is a cease and desist letter, but even this relatively simple action was complicated by borders and even when it reached the other artist and their agents it would be unenforceable. The next step would be a more serious legal action requiring hiring lawyers in Europe to pursue the case. I quickly realized that if I chose to pursue the issue, I would be jumping into the abyss of international law and the intricacies of copyright law.

In the end, it came down to a question of resources and whether it made sense to devote my finances and mental energy to pursuing legal recourse - or was it a better idea to shrug off the issue and focus on the real work of making art. It took considerable emotional effort to let the issue go, but I believe the negativity that legal action would have brought into my life was not worth the hassle or the financial drain.

I will note that now whenever a work I have made begins to gain attention online, I take the basic steps of securing any website address, Facebook page, Twitter handle etc. that could be a variation on the title of the work; although I may never post on any of these sites, I am secure knowing that no one else can either.