What Everyone Should Know About Copyright

"Good artists copy, great artists steal."

“Everything’s a copy, of a copy, of a copy,” declared the protagonist of the novel-turned-movie, Fight Club. Of course, this is not a new or particularly shocking revelation. In fashion, trends are reincarnated and recycled every few years (or even seasons). Musicians often “sample” others’ works. Even inventor of the revolutionary Ford Model T, Henry Ford, proclaimed: “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work.”

The challenges of originality and freshness are especially pronounced in the creative worlds of fashion and pop culture, where “influences” and “inspirations” are often referenced in artistic works. Some artists have faced legal problems for their work, while others continue to involve others’ influences in their creative process. Here’s a look at some recent cases.

Beyoncé vs Pipilotti Rist

While speculations are still rife over who “Becky with the good hair” is, there seems to be another controversy over the originality of her video for a track named “Hold Up”.

There is a provocative scene in the video where Queen Bey is seen walking down a street in a frilly dress, baseball bat in hand, which she uses to smash car windows – a sequence that is interestingly similar to an audio video installation by visual artist Pipilotti Rist called “Ever Is Over All”. 

Coincidence, homage, or rip-off? You be the judge.

Jeremy Scott vs RIME

Last fall, Brooklyn-based graffiti artist Joseph Tierney, who goes by the moniker “RIME”, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Moschino’s creative director Jeremy Scott for lifting his art.

The artwork in question is known as “Vandal Eyes”, a graffiti mural that RIME created on the side of a Detroit building in 2012. Elements of the mural, including the artist’s name and signature, appeared to appropriated by Scott for Moschino’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection – most notably on a dress worn by Gigi Hadid on the runway and Katy Perry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala last May (Scott, who accompanied Perry, also wore a suit bearing the same design).

WWD reported that in January, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favour of Tierney to move forward with his legal claims, which means Scott may have to defend his designs in court.

Calvin Klein Jeans vs Jack Hawkins

Melbourne photographer Jack Hawkins has accused Calvin Klein of copying one of his images in its new advertising campaign for jeans. The advertisement, which features English singer FKA Twigs, includes a shot of her lying among a sea of jeans – a visual that is uncannily similar to a photograph shot by Hawkins last July.

Hawkins has also stated that his photograph was a reference to the iconic scene in the film American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey’s character dreams of Mena Suvari’s character laying naked on a bed of roses.

It is believed that Hawkins will not be pursuing the case, due to the hefty cost of suing a large company like Calvin Klein. A week ago, Hawkins turned to Instagram to share his story, and was met with support and sympathy. Since then, his post has been picked up by news sites like DailyMail and News.com.au.

Any art that contains a recognisable element from another work – be it a lyrical quote, a borrowed riff, a movie remake or an archival print is considered a copy of the original. But does this mean that the piece of art is not creative? I don’t think so. Artists who are able to mash up existing works into something new and relevant should not be stigmatised for being “unoriginal” – instead, they should be applauded for their transformative abilities.

According to the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), “Copyright protects works like novels, computer programmes, plays, sheet music and paintings. Generally, the author of a copyright work has the right to reproduce, publish, perform, communicate and adapt his work. These exclusive rights form the bundle of rights that we call copyright and enable the owner to control the commercial exploitation of his work.” The expression of ideas, like words and illustrations, are protected by copyright. Ideas alone, however, are not.

“When an artistic work, such as a drawing or a sculpture, is applied to a product and industrially produced (i.e. more than 50 copies of the products are produced), the copyright protection will no longer cover that artistic work. It may be protected as a registered design under the Registered Designs Act (Cap. 266), if the registration criteria are met,” states IPOS.

So how can creatives determine if they have a case to pursue? “The infringement doesn’t have to be a carbon copy, as long as it relates to a substantial part of the author’s work. There’s no fixed percentage to determine what is substantial, as it depends on case by case and also precedents set by case law,” shares Fong King Man, a lawyer from a leading intellectual property law firm.

“The artist must be able to prove that the infringer copied the work. Some guidelines are by showing substantial similarity, and if the infringer had access to the artist’s work. The important questions to be asked are: Which element of the author’s work has the infringer used, and does that element constitute a substantial part of the author’s work? Substantiality, however, does not necessarily refer to quantity – it could be a small but distinctive part of the work.”

Make sure you have the proper grounds for a case before threatening to sue someone, though. “The aggrieved person can obtain a declaration that the threats are groundless, obtain an injunction against you, or take action against you for damages for the groundless threats. It's always good to be sure first before proceeding with legal action.”

*The information provided in this article is not to be taken as legal advice. You should always consult a qualified lawyer regarding any specific legal problem or matter.

Photos: YouTube, HBO, Style.com, Calvin Klein, Jack Hawkins.

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