By Claire Wu
Creating artwork is, in some ways, an act of theft. To “steal,” by definition, refers to the act of taking something without permission, and without intending to return it, though with regards to art, there are certainly ways to steal from other artists in a nonmalicious way. In this article, we will discuss what it means to steal from other artists, and how you can do so yourself without plagiarizing or infringing on your fellow artists’ copyright.
Before we discuss how to steal from other artists the right way, let’s begin with what not to do. There are a number of ways that we can learn from other artists, study their works, and even take elements of their work for our own use, but the one thing we must never do is claim another artist’s work as our own–or in a single word, plagiarize.
Plagiarism of art is not only a violation of copyright but among the artistic community is also considered a serious ethical offense. With the technological developments of the digital age, it’s becoming increasingly easier to find other artists’ work, and harder to protect your own.
When “stealing” from other artists, we first need to understand copyright. While we don’t claim to be legal experts, the bottom line is that copyright takes into effect as soon as the work is created in tangible form, bestowing the creator with exclusive authorship rights regardless of the physical ownership of the actual art object. Copyright legislation can vary regionally, so we encourage you to do your own research on how it applies to you.
What does this mean for artists?
Firstly, your own work is protected by copyright, and any reproduction or distribution of your work without your permission is unlawful. Secondly, you cannot reproduce another artist’s work or claim it as your own. This may seem like common sense, especially to an artist, but there are some gray areas.
Within copyright guidelines lies the term “fair use,” allowing for limited use of copyrighted material for purposes such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Determining fair use hinges on factors like the purpose of use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount used, and the potential impact on the market for the original.
To better understand the nuances of fair use, let’s look at past cases involving artists who have “stolen” from other artists.
In 1991, Jeff Koons presented a sculpture based on a postcard image taken by photographer Art Rogers. When instructing his assistants on how to model the sculpture, he gave them the postcard–copyright label removed. When Rogers sued Koons for copyright infringement, Koons claimed fair use by way of parody. The court rejected his argument, concluding that the sculpture was a copy of Rogers’ work given the substantial similarity and Koons’ access to the original image, though Koons and Rogers eventually reached a confidential settlement.
Richard Prince has been the subject of such controversies many times for his appropriative work such as his 2014 series, New Portraits, which utilized other peoples’ Instagram posts. But even before that, in 2009, Patrick Cariou filed a suit against Prince for his 2008 Canal Zone series, which appropriated images that Cariou had taken in 2000. The court initially ruled that the works did not fall under fair use, but in 2013, the ruling was reversed, ultimately stating that Prince’s works were transformative enough.
These days, AI art is a hot topic in the sphere of copyright infringement and art theft. With artificial intelligence being advanced enough to mimic existing work, many artists have raised concerns about the validity of AI art, and how to protect their work from being imitated by AI. As of August 2023, the US court has ruled that AI-generated artwork cannot be copyrighted, but as we know from previous cases, court rulings can be overturned.
As artists, we should stay tuned in for these kinds of cases to better understand how these legal decisions could affect our own practice.
HOW TO “STEAL” FROM OTHER ARTISTS
So how do you “steal” from other artists without infringing copyright?
Taking inspiration from the world around us is an essential part of the creative process, and in doing so, there are ways to “steal” from other artists in a way that’s transformative and respectful.
Think about the artists whom you admire and would like to emulate. Ask yourself what draws you to their work. Is it their use of color? The way they compose their canvas? Seek out whatever attributes set them apart from other artists, and then look at your own artwork. Is there a way you can replicate that quality in your work, combining it with the other facets of your own artistic practice?
As you create your work drawing inspiration from other artists, check in with yourself and ask whether your work is transformative. Maybe you’re directly using elements of another artist’s visual language, or you’re actually taking the image itself and recontextualizing it. Have you done enough to change it? If someone were to compare your work against the other artists, would they have the same answer?
If you’re not sure, the answer is likely no. Now, ask yourself: how can you fix that? Continue to check in with yourself as you keep working. It’s all about self-awareness–and if you don’t trust yourself to assess, then run it by a friend for a fresh set of eyes.
Art studies are a traditional exercise in which the artist, often a student, replicates famous or otherwise noteworthy works of art as a way of understanding the techniques, concepts, and methodologies of their predecessors.
Though many studies focus on understanding aspects of the work, others encompass the full referenced work, involving a holistic recreation of an existing work. While this is a form of reproduction, studies aren’t generally considered a form of copyright infringement and are rather widely accepted as a way to hone one’s skills, due to their educational nature, that the resulting finished works are not used for commercial gain.
Try doing studies of your favorite artworks and artists so that you can “steal” those techniques and apply them to your own work.
Parody and Satire
Parody and satire can fall under the terms of fair use, specifically as a form of criticism and commentary. As a reactionary art form, the purpose of satirical artwork is to discuss social and political topics to spark conversation.
Such works use familiar elements–a character from a movie, a celebrity’s likeness, or an internet-viral image–and infuse them with a new meaning, shaping it to fit a new lens through which the audience can re-examine the topic at hand. As such, parody and satire are frequently upheld by the courts as a protected form of expression under fair use, for their transformative nature that engages with both the existing material and broader cultural and social narratives.
If you’re creating this type of art ask yourself: what is the goal? How does using another artist’s work help you achieve it? Remember that your work must transcend the source material, and take note of previous legal cases citing parody and satire, like the aforementioned Rogers v. Koons case.
The question of when it’s acceptable to “steal” from other artists is a nuanced one. These days, true originality is hard to come by, but there are ways to take inspiration from other artists and learn from them in a way that benefits everyone, and celebrates our predecessors while also allowing us to critique existing media. By “stealing” from other artists with respect and integrity, we can create a dialogue between our works and theirs and grow as artists. Who knows, maybe someone will “steal” from you, too.