Art Piracy & Copyright

From Jeff Koons to Weird Al, an updated look at copyright law in the art world. This is an art criticism discussion for any art room, copyright and piracy have been issues in the art world for a long time. What is the difference between inspiration and copying? When is it ok to use another artists' work in your work? What does Fair Use mean? In today's world with the internet, the popularity of fan art, and issues with piracy these questions are becoming harder to answer.

Lesson Level:

  • Middle School Beginning
  • Middle School Advanced
  • High School Beginning
  • High School Advanced
  • High School AP/IB


Hope Poster

CA Content Standards:

  • 3.0 Historical & Cultural Context
  • 4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
  • 5.0 Connections, Relationships, Applications

Art History & Vocab:

Vocab: Copyright, Piracy, Transformative, Fair Use, Concept Art

Artists: Jeff Koons, Shepard Fairey, Werid Al, Sir Mitchell, Jenny Parks


-Jeff Koons’ “String of Puppies”
-Shepard Fairey’s “Hope Poster”
Arts Law
LA Times Article on Shepard Fairey’s Legal Case
APM Story on Jeff Koons Copyright Issues
Weird Al on Asking Permission from Artists for his musical parodies
Fair Use Copyright Law


Copyright Law

You may begin this lesson a number of ways but I like to start with the radio story from American Public Media’s Marketplace about veteran concept artist Jeff Koons. In less than 3 mins the students can get an overview of the issues regarding artists, copyright laws, and how we perceive these issues/laws has evolved over the years.

What is a Copyright?

Copyright is a bundle of economic rights which give their owner the exclusive right to do certain things in relation to the object it protects.

Copyright protection is automatic upon creation of the work. There is no need to register a work in some official register. The symbol © is used for notification purposes, to put people on notice that the work is protected by copyright, but is not required for the protection to exist.

Arts Law

String of Puppies

Jeff Koons’ “String of Puppies” next to the original photograph.

Fair Use

The most recent famous case of an artist in a copyright lawsuit is street artist and illustrator Shepard Fairey. He created a poster for Mr. Obama’s campaign and used an image to work from as many artists do. This is a good point to bring up what is Fair Use and did Shepard Fairey’s artwork fall under that category? This instance is more complicated than a simple Fair Use case as Shepard tried to cover up the fact that he used a specific photo to work from:

“In February, Fairey pleaded guilty to one count of criminal contempt for destroying documents, manufacturing evidence and other misconduct.  The artist admitted in 2009 to destroying documents and submitting false images in his legal battle with the Associated Press.” –LA TIMES

Fair Use Copyright Law:

“The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work.

The safest course is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission.” U.S. Copyright Office

Parody of an artist’s work is protected under Fair Use but it is still good practice to ask permission to use said works. Weird Al is a great example of this, he does not legally need to ask permission from the musicians he parodies but he does anyway as a sign of respect to their original work.

Here is Weird Al’s version of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” which he called “Handy”:

Weird Al discussion how he asked Iggy Azalea’s permission to use the song on Late Night with Seth Meyers:

Transformative Fair Use:

“Under the first of the four 107 factors, “the purpose and Page II character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature . . .,” the inquiry focuses on whether the new work merely supersedes the objects of the original creation, or whether and to what extent it is controversially “transformative,” altering the original with new expression, meaning, or message. The more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use.”

Fan Art may or may not fall under transformative fair use depending on the level of transformation. Here are a few examples of work from artist Mike Mitchell (A.K.A. Sir Mitchell), who has transformed the copyrighted characters of TV shows and movies in his own style.

Do you think artwork like this should fall under Fair Use or is it simply copying?

Mike Mitchell Super Pack

“Super Pack” from artist Sir Mitchell:

Mike Mitchell Groot Rocket

“Tree Hugger” Sir Mitchell

Piracy & Copyright Infringement:

With the internet it is becoming harder for artists to keep their copyrighted works safe from people trying to make a buck. There are lots of websites that sell artwork without the permission of the artist and that is illegal. Unfortunately, it is the sole job of the artist or copyright holder to enforce their copyright and send take down notices to violators.

“Copyright infringement is the use of works protected by copyright law without permission, infringing certain exclusive rights granted to the copyright holder, such as the right to reproduce, distribute, display or perform the protected work, or to make derivative works. The copyright holder is typically the work’s creator, or a publisher or other business to whom copyright has been assigned.” –Wikipedia

Below is an example of artist Jenny Parks’ popular fan art of the Avengers as cats:

Jenny Parks Avenger Cats

Jenny Parks “Avenger Cats”

Jenny couldn’t have known her artwork would spread so quickly and being an up and coming artist, was flattered by all of the attention. Unfortunately, with popularity comes people trying to make a quick buck. She has been battling the piracy of her artwork by overseas merchants, mostly in Asian countries where copyright laws are not as respected.

Do you think copyright laws should apply in other countries? What could new artists do to keep their artwork from being stolen?

Jenny Parks Avenger Cats Piracy


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