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Artist in Residence Grants, Professor Lionel Bently
University of Cambridge
Former Scheme
2014

The art of copyright law?

Colloquy I, photo by Andrew Atkinson.

Copyright law confers on authors and artists rights to restrict the copying and circulation of their work so that they can secure remuneration from such copying. While perhaps the most obvious challenge to the operation of copyright has been presented by new forms of electronic dissemination, changing conceptions of ‘art’ have brought rather more fundamental intellectual challenges. In fact, artists have spent much of the last century taking issue with those very categories and criteria – such as ‘sculpture’, ‘painting’, ‘engraving’, and thresholds such as ‘originality’ and ‘artistry’ – that British copyright law uses to demarcate its field of operation. Perhaps most famously, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades deliberately challenged prevailing ideas of what art is and what artists do. Following this breakthrough, artists began to invert the privileging of expression over concept, to dispense with formal and form-based understandings of art, and to recognise concepts and text, film and sound, as being as much entitled to occupy the exhibition-space in an ‘art gallery’ as coloured paint daubed by way of brush onto a stretched canvas. In so doing, the art world also brought a challenge for copyright: can a urinal, selected and signed (but not manufactured) by a self-proclaimed and institutionally-recognised artist be an ‘original sculpture’ for copyright law? Can a single sentence of text be an art work at all? If not, and such works fall outside copyright, is the law failing to achieve its aim of incentivising and rewarding ‘art’? Is the legal marginalisation of perhaps the most innovative of artistic practices something that should concern us? Can copyright retain any credibility if it protects the shape of a toasted sandwich or a frisbee (as courts have held), but not the works of Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger or Lawrence Wiener?

Sophie Arkette, who has been awarded an Artist in Residence Grant to work at the Centre of Intellectual Property and Information Law at the University of Cambridge, is an artist who comes out of an “art & text” tradition pioneered by the likes of Wiener. She produces glass sculptures that carry etched and/or sandblasted text which are illuminated in different ways, see below. She is also currently involved in a project to shape text out of chamomile grass, steel and glass. Some of her work sits outside the field of copyright law, while other parts can be shoe-horned into legal categories designed for very different purposes (such as the protection of cinematographic films and sound recordings).

During the residency, Sophie will research cases which either lie on the cusp of copyright acceptability or have failed to obtain copyright protection because of the nature of the work. Sophie will produce a collection of maquettes which can be used as test cases in a mock trial, which will conducted by the law students. She will then produce a series of sculptures using the information gained, some of which will generated out of light using LEDs and lasers. The collection of work will be exhibited in the atrium of the Law School at the conclusion of the residency. We anticipate that the work produced, both its concept and its method of execution, will elicit questions about the effectiveness of current copyright law.

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