Don’t Copy that ©

For years, I’d heard stories about an artist in Rome’s Trastevere district who painted large images of copyright symbols. [1] In addition to what sounded like very interesting art, this seemed to me like a great opportunity.

My thinking went like this:

  • Granted: This artist has a copyright in her paintings of copyright symbols.
  • Granted: If someone were to become inspired by this artist and to, without permission, produce paintings that were not substantially different, these derivative works would be copyright violations.
  • This artist could (successfully!) sue someone for reproducing her reproductions of copyright symbols.
  • That someone, needed to be me.

In addition to sounding like a lot of fun, I would be helping the copyright system get one step closer to a total implosion and raise some awareness in the process. The entire situation would be ridiculous enough that it could trigger news stories. These stories would, explicitly or implicitly, reflect and bring attention to the concept of the copyrightability of ideas and concepts that, commonsensically for most non-copyright-lawyers, should not be copyrightable.

My original plan was simple enough:

  1. Start selling copies of the artist’s copyright symbols.
  2. Get sued.

The problems of course are that that selling paintings seems like a whole lot of work and getting sued kind of sucks.

As I thought about it, I realized that neither of these things was really essential to the plan or the goals; I merely needed to make it appear that the two things were happening:

All I really needed was a website and a press release and permission and participation from the artist.

The final bit was the only tricky party but seeing that this woman was painting copyright symbols and selling them, I figured that chances were good that she had either a good critique of copyright, a good sense of humor, or both.

To make the long story short, I met with the artist in Rome, proposed the idea to her. She liked the idea but wasn’t comfortable following through with it for a number of reasons I had to respect. Many of her other paintings are about media and information — usually about how there is too much. She simply doesn’t see value in using media or IP against itself in this way. We have the same goals but different ideas of tactics.

I still like the idea and would jump at another opportunity although I suspect publishing it here will do something to reduce its effectiveness.

[1] She paints other things as well, many of which I quite like, although it was the copyright symbols that really interested me as far as this story goes.

3 Replies to “Don’t Copy that ©”

  1. Note that an image of a copyright symbol, unless very unusually done, fails the basic originality test and thus would not get copyright protection.

    (At least in Finland, one criterion used is whether it is possible to convey the idea of the work in a substantially different way and whether different artists would presumably produce substantially different works, if working independently from each other.)

  2. According to my understanding of copyright law, originality is still an important part of copyright but, for the last 100 years, has been a very low bar indeed.

    Check out Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographic Company for one of the most influential decisions on originality. Basically, it says that originality is not determined based on the novelty or creativity of the work but by the presence or absense of the artists personal expression.

    These copyright symbols are (IMHO) definitely copyrighted in the US and probably most other Berne Convention or TRIPS countries as well. I can’s speak authoritatively on copyright law in Finland but I’m willing to suggest that “originality” may not be as much as high a bar as you think.

  3. I’ve read a fair bit of Finnish copyright law practice.  The bar is low, as you say, but if two people necessarily come up with the same image when they have the same idea, it cannot possibly be copyrighted.

    I have no knowledge of how the law is practiced in the US.

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