Earlier this month, when George W. Bush premiered his portraits of world leaders, we found and cited the sources for nearly all of his paintings. It was really easy, because they were taken directly from the subjects’ first Google image search results and Wikipedia entries. With the help of appropriation expert Greg Allen (who was the first to spot GWB’s Google trail), we concluded that the former president’s paintings were (1) bad and (2) transformative of the source images, and therefore not really breaking copyright law (unlike Shepard Fairey, that time).
A tipster has just alerted us that someone is selling art prints, pillows, tote bags and wall clocks with George W. Bush’s paintings of himself, his dad, Karzai, Putin and Blair on them, through the Society6 platform: “In a ‘forced democratization’ of this art, the works have been re-appropriated and uploaded by an unnamed artist on Society6 for anyone to buy, with all artist profits going to benefit a charity.” GREG!!!
ANIMAL asked Greg Allen about the legality and ethics of this newest development.
“Yeah, this seems like a dick move, supposedly by someone without the guts to come forward and claim their bad boy gesture. Assuming they exist, of course,” Allen tells ANIMAL. “I suspect it’s purely a slow-off-the-line publicity stunt by Society6, which is the merchandising subsidiary of online content mill Demand Media. And it’s a dick move whenever a corporation rips off the creative output of an artist, especially an emerging artist. Even if he happens to be a war criminal.”
Unfortunately, our fears that George W. Bush would play himself into an appropriation art case study have come true. His paintings may be terrible, but with every terrible brush stroke and every terrible nuance of their childlike execution, he had transformed the images into something else. That, ladies and gentlemen, is appropriation, but saving pics as jpegs and emailing them to a print-to-order website is not.
“~YSK” merchandize on Sobriety6
“I’m sure Society6 has terms of service that include certifying that you own the copyright for the images you use on products. If the Bush paintings stay up, that means their IP process is a sham. Or that it’s a corporate stunt,” Allen added. However, the only mention of “original work” in Society6’s terms of service are in the instructions for formatting the submitted jpgs correctly.
But what about the alleged charity donation note on the product pages: “The artist profits from the sale of all artwork will go to benefit War Child International, a family of independent humanitarian organizations which work together to help children and young people affected by armed conflict.”
“Not all proceeds, just the artist’s portion,” Allen notes. “Also, what about it? It won’t ever matter here, but legally speaking, infringement is determined in part by the economic harm suffered by the copyright holder, not by the noble philanthropic gestures of the anonymous rando. Bush has already sold Christmas ornaments with his painting on it, with proceeds going to whatever charity he picked. Because, I guess, he didn’t want to look like he was out there hawking merch, whatever. But he’s already demonstrated his own inclination to use his paintings to decorate consumer products. So in copyright infringement claim terms, that would be a slam dunk. The fact that they’re claiming to donate the ‘artist profits’ to charity is lame, since all Society6’s margins are baked into their product before any outsider gets a dime. Trying to hide copyright stunts behind charity is a rookie move that doesn’t help their legal standing; it only shows they’re trying to look less dickish. I’d be more impressed if they said they were going to cut GWB a check.”
TL;DR: Greg Allen says this is a dick move, copyright infringement, not appropriation by definition, and likely a publicity stunt. Here’s to defending creeps from dicks!
UPDATE: According to the Washington Post, Society6 has removed the ~YSK store as of 12:50 p.m. EST.