Another familiar name – writing about Schmid was one of the last things I wrote about on my EYV blog. I was interested to read a fairly long interview with him on the WeAreOCA site. I still struggle with appropriation. On the one side, we see established photographers exposed in the press for using other photographers’ work as part of news stories, uncredited and passed off as their own, sometimes with just enough editing to fool whatever authenticity checks are run. On the other hand we have a litany of interesting, sometimes amazing work, being presented and published by people who also perhaps do not own the copyright of the images that they are using. These images might be via commercial transactions (ebay, charity shops etc), or they might be “collected”, “found” or “appropriated” from online sharing services (Penelope Umbrico’s transformed Sunsets, Joachim Scmid’s many series), they might be commented on then lifted unaltered from Instagram (Richard Prince) or they might be presented unaltered and the transformation is in the mind of the viewer as they consider if indeed the work could have been made by someone else, in the social circumstances of the time (Sherrie Levine’s appropriation of Walker Evan’s FSA series).
It’s interesting that in news and photojournalism, this activity is likely to be regarded as theft. In art photography the act is referred to as “found images”, “collecting”, “gathering” or “appropriation”, perhaps combined with “curating”. Rather different, and something that leaves me with a nasty taste in my mouth. It feels like a double standard. Do we expect copyright law to protect our own work whilst we simultaneously “appropriate” others’ work? Is vernacular photography a shared resource before the required time elapses for it to become public domain? Interestingly, “for works made between 1 July 1912 and 31st July 1989 the “author” is the person who owned the material on which the photograph was taken (e.g. the negative)” (Leeds Metropolitan University copyright guidleines). Before and after these dates the author (and copyright holder) is the photographer. Then we add in the dimension of whether or not the work is already in the public domain, or with an allocated Creative Commons license.
The OCA interview doesn’t actually mention copyright, which would seem like an interesting area to explore. On a debate on Flickr, some text is quoted, allegedly attributed to Scmid’s website, saying in essence that copyright only applies to photographs of sufficient originality, and that the majority of vernacular photographs are not original enough to have copyright protection. I can’t see this text anywhere on his current site, so perhaps he changed his mind. The idea of your work needing to meet a minimum threshold of originality in order for it to be protected by copyright law is certainly highly debateable and not, I believe, the way copyright law works in the UK. I think the current debate centres on whether the person doing the appropriating demonstrates sufficient transformation of the original. Certainly, this was the logic that has won in court for Richard Prince, though I don’t know how the newest case is going (summer 2017).
I’m conflicted here. I like the perspective and different views that we can gain by a new interpretation of existing work. It feels as though we’re regulating copyright law via court cases; and that there are possibly differing standards depending on whether it is factual or vernacular/art photography under question.