Blog / 2019 / Dear Copyright: I Still Hate You.

March 14, 2019

Copyright just made me into a fool. Well, not copyright so much as the scaredy-cats who bow and scrape before copyright law (or their imagining of what copyright law is). Which scaredy cats am I talking about today?

Redbubble—AKA the print-on-demand site I use to sell reproductions of my art—and the image rights management company Licensing Works!

This isn’t Redbubble’s first round of stern words on my blog, but this time the situation is all the more ridiculous.

the Little Prince escaping with B 612, image by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince
(If you’re a fan, please know that the English version of The Little Prince has a huge mistake in it.)

A few years back, I used this image by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as inspiration for the image below, which is an illustration for my book about why copyright is not good for artists.

the Little Prince escaping with parrots
Gwenn Seemel
Parroted Prince
2014
acrylic on unmounted canvas
12 x 12 inches

I used Saint-Exupéry’s work because—fool that I am!—I believed that the artist’s estate wasn’t stupid about copyright, and I wanted to celebrate the estate and all the good I thought it was doing. I altered the original image to make a criticism of copyright:

  • the “wild birds” who allow the Prince leave in Saint-Exupéry’s book have become parrots in my version.
  • the volcano in my image of B 612 erupts with copyright-filled lava.

In other words: parrots—creatures who are famous for copying—are helping the Prince escape the destruction of copyright.

Since it is making commentary, you could easily argue that my remix of Saint-Exupéry’s image is protected by fair use, the limitation on copyright law that allows you to use art without asking permission in certain situations.

But Redbubble doesn’t care. It took down my image, and it won’t let me see the claim that Licensing Works! is supposedly making on my piece. (Yes, the company actually uses an exclamation point in its name.) It’s likely that Licensing Works! doesn’t even know that my piece exists. Redbubble is almost certainly preemptively taking down the piece because it is a scaredy-cat.

What’s more, there’s no room to make a fair use argument with Redbubble. Want to dispute a takedown? You are required to provide a signature from the image rights manager authorizing you to use the work.

And, in some ways, I don’t care. I make a lot of art and there’s still plenty of it available on Redbubble. But there’s a part of me that is really upset.

I know that the world is full of evils—especially right now—but copyright law has a chilling effect on creativity. And when we don’t nurture creativity, our ability to create our way out of every other problem is diminished.

Please don’t let copyright law freak you out so much that you when some exclamation-pointed jerk tells you to jump, your first question is: “off which cliff?”

Learn about copyright. This movie, this book by Lawrence Lessig, or my book are all good places to start.

PLEASE NOTE

I have no patience for institutions or individuals that misrepresent or misuse copyright. I’ve called out everyone from David Hockney and Austin Kleon to Portland’s art council and the TED company. If you are offended by my copyright questioning, please read this letter before talking to me about copyright.

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