Review: Conference #3 on Artists’ Rights and Intellectual Property

On Monday, December 2, the Fresh Paint Gallery took on a theme we haven’t dealt with in-depth in quite some time: intellectual property and artists’ rights. Our third conference featured Montréal appropriation artist Emmanuel Laflamme, McGill professor of law Tina Piper, and returning moderator Mike O’Brien. Thanks to some brilliant questions from our audience, the conversation lasted over two hours.

In his introduction, Laflamme talked at length about the feeling of “being famous without being famous,” which he first experienced when one of his images went viral on the Internet but was attributed to Banksy. Laflamme specializes in appropriation: he takes icons and symbols already familiar to his audience and subverts them by creating uncanny juxtapositions. Snow White takes a bite out of the Apple logo in one of his best-known creations; Jesus Christ and Santa Claus share a Coke in another. Piper’s introduction focused on her expertise in legal history and mentioned her forthcoming book, Putting Intellectual Property in its Place: Creative Labour and the Everyday. She schooled the crowd on the difference between copyright and trademark laws (copyright laws protect the presentation of a slogan or logo, trademark protects “the good feelings you associate with that logo”) and gave her legal opinion on how various scenarios that Laflamme, O’Brien, and the audience posed should play out.

The scope of the conversation swung widely from what one should do to abide by Canadian law, to what one might get away with, given current legislation as it stands.  Of course, we touched upon the Chevrolet Canada-Under Pressure controversy of 2011 that initially inspired this conference theme. Piper affirmed that, particularly in the case of Chevrolet, “they are relying on you [graffiti and street artists] to provide youth and fun for them” in their advertising campaigns—hence, the stolen imagery. She also mentioned that in most cases involving a corporation stealing from an individual, companies will try exceedingly hard to settle out of court, so that they can avoid the creation of a legal precedent and therefore keep engaging in these illegal practices. It seems that in this art medium largely known for its lack of rules, playing with IP law (which Piper calls “ubiquitous and henegemonic”) can go either way: since the laws are so outdated, no one needs to obey, so long as (s)he can find a loophole.

Perhaps the most moving sentiment expressed during the entire event belonged to Laflamme when he implored the audience: “Why bother asking permission to create based on what I see every day? . . . I think I have the right to express myself and throw back what they throw at me every day.” A debate on the treatment of public space then came to life: What kind of politics surround the spaces owned by companies and brands, versus those taken back by graf writers and street artists? Despite Piper’s opinion that “things are going to change a lot in the next ten to thirty years,” the question remains to be settled.