Thursday, October 15, 2009

Public Art = Private Copyright

If I paint a picture of a statue that's located on a public street and then sell the picture, am I in violation of copyright law? Also, I should probably mention that the statue and I are in the U.S. and that the sculptor is alive (although I do not know what the state of the copyright on the work is). The short answer is that an unauthorized reproduction of a copyrighted work -- including a publicly viewable one such as a mural -- is an infringement. Also, the fact that the sculptor is still alive indicates that the work is protected under copyright law. Therefore, if the copyright owner sees your reproduction, there's a reasonable chance you'll open your mailbox to find a cease and desist letter. If you're talking about a single painting, obviously the chances of being noticed are far less than if you are selling postcard reproductions. And it's also unlikely that artists will go after reproductions that are part of a blog reporting public art. Similarly, the less prominent that the sculpture is within your painting -- for example, you painted a city street and the  sculpture is simply one of many elements in the painting -- the less likely you are to trigger a complaint (and the better your chances for arguing fair use). A film production also used an architectural works exemption to justify public sculpture reproductions in a Batman movie. Despite our warnings, the Dear Rich Staff believes that some public art begs for unauthorized reproductions. (By the way here's a nice article on the subject of public art controversies.)