What started off as an innocuous day out at the museum turned out to be a not-so-happy rendezvous with avant garde art for a 90 year old woman in Germany. While modern art can be confusing and leave much to imagination, the piece in question did nothing of that sort and was clear in what it stood for. It was an art work resembling a crossword puzzle with an instruction to its side, which read “insert words”. Perhaps heaving a sigh of relief at finding something engaging after a long stroll amongst undecipherable art work, the nonagenarian got down to work- she filled out the blanks in the crossword. But, less appreciative were the museum authorities, who reported the matter to the police. But, not one to back down, the woman got hold of a lawyer and he proved that he was an artist himself when it came to the art of lawyering by claiming copyright over the “new” art work his client had created!
Fluxus art and copyright
The art work titled “Reading- work- piece” at display in the Nuremberg museum is a creation of an artist called Arthur Köpcke. Köpcke was associated with the ‘Fluxus’ movement. As explained here, the central idea of the Fluxus movement was that the museums had no authority to determine the value of art and they should be made widely available to the masses. Moreover, the proponents of the movement sought the active involvement of the masses in art and wanted to annihilate the gap between art and life. The irony in our case gets even stronger when one gets to know that the most famous piece of Fluxus movement is called “total art matchbox”, which too had an instruction by its side; one that exhorted people to use the matches in it to destroy all art and finally that piece itself!!
And if you thought the lawyer in our story was pushing his cards way too much, you could not be farther from the truth. Dadaism, which heavily influenced the fluxus movement, gave us L.H.O.O.Q or what we often know/ see as “Mona Lisa with the moustache”. This is cited as one of the classic examples of a transformative work in copyright classes. So, although the woman in our scenario could have tried to make a case for transformativeness, I wonder whether the doctrine can be stretched to mean transformation of the underlying work literally!
I had a couple of other random copyright thoughts as well while reading about this incident. One is regarding the relief the author/ his estate could seek in case the copyright has already been assigned to the museum. As our readers may know, even after the assignment of copyright, authors have an existing moral right in their work, through which they can prevent others from defacing the work (for an interesting series of articles on moral rights, see here, here and here). The next one was regarding the possibility of an implied license. While most jurisdictions require assignment or licensing to be done in writing, it could be interesting to examine if a case of implied license can be made vis a vis art works like the ones associated with the Fluxus movement, which seem to expressly declare that public at large may make use of their works.
And finally, for those interested, the woman does not seem to be in much trouble as the authorities have given her the benefit of doubt and made it clear that the complaint was for insurance purposes.
Image from here