Blog / 2013 / David Hockney, Copyright, and the Five Stages of Grief in my Free Culture Activism

December 9, 2013

As I surf the interwebs in search of inspiration for my life, for my work, and for this blog, I’m regularly confronted by a thing I don’t love: the ©.

I find it on artist’s sites, often accompanied by stern warnings and sometimes by more courteous requests for civility. And every time I come across the copyright symbol, my heart sinks. It means one less person is questioning the copyright paradigm, one less creative is thinking outside the intellectual property box.

Still, I get it. I understand that it’s how we were all raised to think. We believe in the deepest part of ourselves that if we make a thing it belongs to us, even as we release it into the world hoping it will be thoroughly enjoyed by others (though only in the “right” ways). I may not agree with this view, but I get where it comes from.

screenshot of David Hockney’s website
screenshot of David Hockney’s website splash page

Then, the other day, I came upon David Hockney’s site. This is what his splash page looks like.

screenshot of David Hockney’s website
screenshot of David Hockney’s website warning page

And, when you “enter” his site, you get this warning...

screenshot of David Hockney’s website
screenshot of David Hockney’s website splash page

...which turns into this when you put your mouse in the right spot.

Now, before happening upon Hockney’s very unwelcoming welcome, I think I was depressed about the state of the free culture movement, but I was also starting to accept that some people will never doubt copyright’s usefulness. I was definitely beyond denial, anger, and bargaining in any case, but Hockney’s choices sent me right back to denial.

To explain: I’m using Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to talk about my feelings because of Jean Russell, a culture hacker I met at a conference who recently brought up the idea that people approach their activism in much the same way as they grieve for the world being not quite as they would like it to be.

Jean wrote:

I think we would do well to consider every kind of activism within the framework of the stages of grief. People are at different stages, and we create different ways for people to engage based on what stage they are in. Whether you are in denial or anger or bargaining or depression or acceptance phase (and we call each other out if we are in different phases) both individuals and society as a whole is going through a grieving process. And if we can hold that frame, then we can have more compassion for those of us in a different phase of that process.

If you’ve ever been bitten by the activist bug, you know the truth of Jean’s words. The passion of activism comes in waves, and it makes a lot of sense to match up the different sorts of activist expression with the Kübler-Ross model.

And I know this viscerally at the moment, because the first thing I did upon discovering Hockney’s warning page was to reject the idea that this was actually his site. I clicked “I agree” even though I totally don’t because I needed to see if this site was for real.

screenshot of David Hockney’s website
screenshot of David Hockney’s website home page

I’m pretty sure it is.

And that’s when I got my rage on, but just briefly. Then I took a breath. I thought maybe something had happened to Hockney to make him be this way and if only someone would talk with him about it he’d be more reasonable. And then I didn’t care and didn’t think any excuse was good enough. So, ya, I made it back to depression, but it’s tinged with the get-it-done attitude of acceptance.

Whatever you think of my little grief dance, it’s important to note that the impetus was Hockney’s unethical behavior. When the artist says that we may not reproduce his content “anywhere at anytime in any form” he is lying. He is also throwing the authority of his fame and money behind the lie.

Under copyright law, we can reproduce his images and words as I’ve just done, in order to comment on them. This follows from the fair use limitation on copyright, and the denial that this limitation exists is obviously part of Hockney’s own process of grief.

screenshot of the Wikipedia page explaining the rationale for its use of Hockney’s image

It’s okay to not want to question copyright. I mean, intellectual property law is causing big problems for society, but I get why you’d want to avoid thinking about it. It’s so daunting and complicated that even entities like Wikipedia are nervous about it.

That said, it’s not okay to use scare tactics to get others to submit to your will and your worldview. Teach yourself about copyright—read this book, watch this documentary, and learn about Creative Commons for starters—and, whatever you end up believing, please don’t lie to support your beliefs.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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