Theft or Transformation?

Can Someone Else Sell My Instagram Photos?

My readers know that I am always following developments in and around copyright law and the many ways that developing technology is challenging existing legal structures. [See Here] That’s why I was shocked when the following tweet came across my Twitter feed:

@fortune

For the uninitiated, Instagram is “a way to share your life through pictures” captured on a mobile phone, often using a “filter” to transform the image. In other words, Instagram is about sharing content that one creates. Under U.S. law, the author (creator) is the copyright owner.

Copyright protects works of creative artistic expression such photographs, and importantly, gives the owner the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, publicly display, publicly perform, and modify a work for a certain period of time.

My gut reaction was to think that New York artist Richard Prince’s canvases featuring other people’s Instagram photos is a clear case of copyright infringement. To paint a complete picture (pun intended), it must be noted that Prince has added a short message posted as a comment below what is otherwise just a screen shot of the original image.

However, as many legal pundits have commented, the situation may be more complicated. The is a good example of the new legal issues that our culture of mash-ups and remixes have created. The internet is awash with altered, reposted, and aggregated media like text, music, and video. Sophisticated, ubiquitous and surprisingly simple tools pervade a growing range of Internet-based platforms turning amateurs into auteurs. Without doubt these platforms have spawned a huge wave of creativity — but they also raise difficult questions about attribution and ownership.

It is not surprising that Prince is unabashed and unreserved in his appropriation of other’s photographs. This is not the first time Prince has landed in the legal cross-hairs for appropriating another’s art. In the landmark 2013 copyright case of Cariou v. Prince, Prince prevailed after being sued by French photographer Patrick Cariou. That lawsuit concerned Prince’s 2008 “Canal Zone,” a series of paintings that incorporated photographs by from Cariou’s 2000 book Yes, Rasta.

That case turned on an increasingly criticized formulation of the “fair use” doctrine, the “transformative use” test as applied by the U.S. 2d Circuit. “Transformative use” is not one of the four enumerated fair use factors. Rather, it is simply one aspect of the first fair use factor, which looks to the “purpose and character” of the use. The future of the Cariou “transformative use” test was cast in doubt by the 7th Circuit’s withering criticism of its application in the recent case of Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation .

Whether Prince’s “remix” works are “fair use” or little more than theft may depend on how the 2d Circuit chooses to apply the “fair use” test, should it come to that, given the 7th Circuit’s thorough criticism of the 2d Circuit’s previous application.

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