Cultural Insanity: You Can't Show A Painting In A Movie Without Paying The Copyright Holder

from the this-makes-no-sense dept

The NY Times has an article about yet another ridiculous bit of copyright law, the fact that moviemakers have to license artwork, even if they own the physical piece to show it in a movie. And it gets even worse, when you find out that the ridiculous position of the Artists Rights Society (think the RIAA/MPAA for artists) is that the newly released 3D version of Titanic needs a new license, because its use of artwork is somehow not covered by the original license:
It is there in the new 3-D version of “Titanic,” as it was in James Cameron’s original film: a modified version of Picasso’s painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” aboard the ship as it sinks.

Of course that 1907 masterpiece was never lost to the North Atlantic. It has been at the Museum of Modern Art for decades — which is precisely the reason the Picasso estate, which owns the copyright to the image, refused Mr. Cameron’s original request to include it in his 1997 movie.

But Mr. Cameron used it anyway.

After Artists Rights Society, a company that guards intellectual property rights for more than 50,000 visual artists or their estates, including Picasso’s, complained, however, Mr. Cameron agreed to pay a fee for the right to use the image.

With the rerelease of “Titanic,” the society wants Mr. Cameron to pay again, asserting that the 3-D version is a new work, not covered under the previous agreement.
Of course, I recognize that ownership of the image is different than holding the copyright in the image -- though I'm a bit surprised that most art purchases don't include a copyright assignment or at least a permissive license as well. But it strikes me as ridiculous that the use of such images in a movie -- especially in passing -- isn't a clear case of fair use. This highlights the ridiculousness of the "permission-based society" we live in, where even if you own something, you don't really own it.

Why do we let this kind of craziness happen? Why don't we, as a society, stand up and point out that it makes no sense. If you have possession of the painting, why shouldn't you be allowed to use it in a movie? Even if you don't have the painting. How is having that painting in the movie, in any way, harming the economic value of the painting? The answer is that it is not. If anything, it's increasing the prestige and value of the painting... and it's doing all of that for free.

Think of it in a slightly different context. These days, when other products are seen in movies -- like a can of Coke, for example -- it's often there because of product placement. That is, the provider paid for it to be in the movie. Couldn't you make an argument that artwork that shows up in movies gets the same sort of benefit of the attention of the moviegoers? Why is it, then, that filmmakers are expected to pay a license to have the artwork, but get paid to have the Coke can?

Filed Under: 3d, artwork, fair use, licensing, moma, picasso, titanic


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  1. identicon
    Mark, 26 Apr 2012 @ 4:21pm

    I've purchased original artwork before, and the original artist asked for my permission to continue to have a facsimile reproduction of the piece in his own portfolio. I had no problem with his request, of course, but I was nonetheless astounded he would have to do that. What I learned from this is that in the case of unreproduced originals, the person who owns the physical painting of a work evidently holds *ALL* the rights on that work... and, apparently, that there is absolutely no expiration on it. My kids will inherit the painting when I'm gone, and they will continue to have more control over it than the artist's own children.

    Taking from this what I understand to be the general case, whether the copyright has expired on the work or not is irrellevant. The owner of the original physical work evidently has all legal rights to control unauthorized reproductions of the work, just as a copyright holder would. The difference is that the rights a physical owner has are perpetual. Cameron would have been far better off simply not using an image that the owners did not permit.

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