Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Copyright

Tracey Moffatt, Laudanum (detail), 1998

Tracey Moffatt's Laudanum is one of my favorite works in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Rarely on display the immense tableau is at once mysterious, erotic and controversial (a perfect 3 out of 3 in my book!). Perhaps it's infrequent appearances are for the above reasons. After all the National Gallery stirs up more controversy with its sometimes questionable acquisition policies than it does in promoting 'out there' art. But that's another story, and what has it got to do with copyright? Read on...

In sourcing much of the material for my photomontages from existing print publications, I have been asked on more than one occasion about copyright issues. I am aware of the Copyright Act 1968, and in principle agree with its premise. I would be the first to jump up and down if I thought I was being ripped off! The Act acknowledges that artists refer to other artists work and 'appropriate' material for their own use. The Act says there is a problem when a 'substantial' portion of another copyright owners work is used, and when 'profit or gain' is to be had from use of the same...certainly defining the latter point is easier than the first.

For my own work I use material sourced from Op shops and second hand shops. One could argue that this material was already in the 'public domain'. I also think that if other well known artists can get away with blatant copying then why is my work suddenly different. At least I change the context or meaning of the original source. And if a copyright owner should object to my use of their work and I have made profit or gain from it I would give them the money. It would be foolish to contest such an issue in court...

I prefer to think of my work as 'paradigmatic plagiarism', where the original source is changed in such a way to create an entirely new tone and meaning. I first came across this term when reading critical studies on my favorite Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lifted large slabs of passages from German idealist philosophies. Excuses are made for Coleridge because he suffered from bipolar disorder and was addicted to opium tincture, also known as laudanum...

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