Sun, Apr 29, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Art copyrights linger long after artists are gone

If a movie director wants a famous painting in the background of a shot, he might have to go to a lot of trouble and expense to get the rights to use it

By Patricia Cohen  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Tania Chou

It is there in the new 3D 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 in the North Atlantic. It has been at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for decades — which is precisely the reason the Picasso estate, which owns the copyright to the image, refused Cameron’s original request to include it in his 1997 movie.

However, Cameron used it anyway.

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

With the re-release of Titanic, the society wants Cameron to pay again, asserting that the 3D version is a new work not covered under the previous agreement.

“I don’t expect we’ll have any difficulty,” said Theodore Feder, president of the society, who contacted Cameron last week.

Filmmakers are not the only ones who sometimes run afoul of artists’ copyright law. In recent weeks, the Google Art Project, which just expanded its online collection of images to more than 30,000 works from 151 museums, agreed to remove 21 images it had posted because of copyright challenges.

Artists’ copyright is frequently misunderstood. Even if a painting (or drawing or photograph) has been sold to a collector or a museum, the artist or their heirs retain control of the original image for 70 years after the artist’s death.

Think of a novel. You may own a book, but you do not own the writer’s words; they remain the intellectual property of the author for a time.

So while MOMA owns the actual canvas of Les Demoiselles, the family of Picasso, who died in 1973, still owns the image — and under existing law, the estate will continue to own the copyright until 2043.

If someone wants to reproduce the painting — on a Web site, a calendar, a T-shirt, or in a film — it is the estate that must give its permission, not the museum. That is why, despite the expansion, the Google Art Project still does not contain a single Picasso.

Indeed, few 20th-century artists are included in the project’s digital collection because copyright owners have not yet given permission.

“We don’t want to prevent Google from showing the work, but they won’t enter into negotiations with us,” Feder said.

The Art Project’s position is that it is the responsibility of each museum to get copyright permission.

“Google is placing the burden and onus on the museum, which is unfair to them and unfair to the artists,” Feder said.

Robert Panzer, executive director of VAGA, another company that represents the copyright interests of artists, said that Google was legally responsible for securing the permissions.

“It’s a game that they should try to make it someone else’s responsibility,” said Panzer, whose group represents more than 7,000 artists worldwide.

The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio recently asked the Google Art Project to remove Dancer Resting (1940), by Henri Matisse, as well as 20 other images from its collection that are under copyright.

“There had been some confusion on all sides,” director of communications for the Toledo museum Kelly Garrow said.

“We want those works on the Art Project, but there needs to be some type of agreement to make that happen,” he added.

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