16 December 2005

Glass of Fashion, Mould of Form

The Seattle Times online edition often carries tidbits on controversies in the arts that somehow escape the notice of "bigger" papers. An article on a pending lawsuit over blown-glass sculptures is an excellent example… particularly in the other issues it illuminates.

How does an artist go about proving — or disproving — copyright infringement? How do you differentiate between Chihuly's influence on other glass artists and artistic plagiarism? Can he claim exclusive rights to designs that are modeled on things such as Navajo blankets and sea life? And what does it mean for the world of art glass?

Maureen O'Hagan, "Glass Artist Chihuly's Lawsuit Tests Limits of Copyrighting Art" (16 Dec 2005) (emphasis in original). Of course, this is the obvious issue. The less-obvious issue is buried a bit later in the story:

Chihuly hasn't blown the glass himself since accidents left him physically unable to do so. Instead, he has a team of employees who execute his ideas, the lawsuit said.

Id. So, then, the work-for-hire doctrine—complicated by the issue of derivative works—raises its ugly head. In more than one place:

The lawsuit alleges that a former Chihuly employee, Bryan Rubino, was enlisted by Kaindl to make Chihuly knockoffs. Rubino, who worked for Chihuly for about a dozen years, worked on virtually every Chihuly series, the lawsuit said. The suit claims that Kaindl signs the Rubino-made works as if they were his own, then puts them up for sale in local galleries and through an array of Web sites.

Id. (fake paragraphing removed for clarity).

So it's not just the direct copying at issue; it's moral rights, too, whether one bases them in copyright (or VARA) or in trademark. Functionally, we have two parallel chains:

designer craftsman 1 artwork 1
employer selects artwork 1 craftsman 2 artwork 2

Note, too, that both artworks are attributed not to the craftsman, but to the designer (artwork 1) or employer (artwork 2).

Too, "inspiration" and "influence" are particularly appropriate topics right now; tomorrow is deaf Ludwig's 235th birthday. This illustrates some of the tension between copyright and artistic influence—and Beethoven isn't nearly as good an example (nor as parallel to the Chihuly dispute) as would be other composers who copied more directly and extensively from "folk art."