ORIGAMI ARTISTS SUE SARAH MORRIS
May 10, 2011
Everyone already knows that yBa artist Sarah Morris -- celebrated for brightly colored abstractions that are part early Frank Stella, part Larry Zox, and that have sold for more than $160,000 at auction -- is an appropriation artist. She admits that works from her recent "Origami Series," which began in 2007 and consists of almost 40 paintings, are based on the abstract diagrams used to make those traditional Japanese decorative sculptures. [Image: Sarah Morris, Falcon.]
But now, in yet another manifestation of the mania for copyright lawsuits against contemporary artists, a group of six origami artists -- headed by one Robert Lang, said to be the world's most famous origami artist -- have sued Morris in Federal Court in Oakland, Ca., for using what they say are their original, and copyrighted, origami crease patterns as a source for the layout of the shapes in her paintings. According to Lang's website, the plaintiffs have identified 24 Morris works that are "unauthorized copies" of origami patterns. Morris has even admitted, in a letter to Lang, that her paintings were inspired by his work.
In their lawsuit, Lang and his colleagues claim that they are entitled to recover Morris' profits and damages, as well as attorney's fees. Painter and NEWSgrist blogger Joy Garnett, who first reported on the case, notes that Morris has a good argument that her use of the designs is "transformative," in that she makes a new and different artwork from copyrighted material. Morris appropriates the “functional diagrams” for 3D objects as compositional devices for her two-dimensional paintings, “the purpose of which is to comment ironically on the nature of flatness in painting,” according to Garnett. And Morris' paintings can hardly be said to harm the origami artists' market.
Furthermore, though Lang et al. have copyrighted their designs, it seems likely that they existed in the public domain; one of Lang's copyrighted books is titled, for instance, Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Secrets for an Ancient Art (2003). What's more, Garnett points out, it can be argued that origami designs are not copyrightable because they are "procedural diagrams." Their purpose is to instruct people how to make 3D objects, and so they are not yet expressions, but only the idea -- and ideas can't be copyrighted.
Further food for thought: a particularly thorough parsing over at Techdirt, from the comments section for Origami Creators Sue Artist For Copyright Infringement Concerning Crease Patterns, (filed under "the fold-away dept" - ha!):
Confusion of types of IP
[Link to comment]
Whether you can copyright an origami work seems like a tough question. Would you have to get Phu Tran's permission to diagram his rose design? A patent on an origami work might be appropriate, though you can imagine why people wouldn't like that since it costs so much money and time to file and is more short-lived. Perhaps you could apply trade secret protection for creating an origami work, though that would also be limited and would preclude publishing any instructions (and publishing such instructions is the main way to make money through origami). I think with the state of copyright law you could make the case that origami is copyrightable. But the sticking point seems to be the fact that these people publish instructions on how to replicate the works. The courts had argued that you can't copyright recipes because the ingredients and their proportions are facts. Does the same apply to published origami instructions? Would it have copyright protection if no instructions were published? We might imagine similar cases, such as, for example, a magic trick. Does David Copperfield have copyright over the disappearing Statue of Liberty illusion? Does Criss Angel retain copyright over his levitation illusion, though he published instructions on how to replicate it?
From a practical perspective it should be evident that the amount of innovation in origami in the 20th century is immense, just as in the fashion industry and among illusionists, despite (or perhaps because of) weak IP protection.