The appropriation of images in art has a long history. From the Cubist collages of Picasso and Georges Braque, or Kurt Schwitters’ Merz works and Andy Warhol’s soup cans, using familiar or popular imagery and representing it in a new work has been around for a long time.

Kurt Schwitters, 'Magic' circa 1936-40
Kurt Schwitters
Magic circa 1936-40
Collage of printed paper
support: 131 x 106 mm
Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to Tate 2007© DACS, 2002

Some image appropriation is a necessity, such as orthodox iconography where artists work to strict codes about how various religious figures can be depicted. Some subverts and comments upon the original image, like Richard Prince’s re-photographing of an already-existing photograph. While sometimes just a change of context, from hoarding to gallery, or TV screen to artists film can change the intention enough to be new.

And while appropriation of popular imagery is familiar in art works, it often works the other way, from art to advertising, as artists such as Fischli & Weiss or Gillian Wearing have mentioned.

Gillian Wearing OBE, ''I'm desperate'' 1992-3
Gillian Wearing OBE
'I'm desperate' 1992-3
Colour photograph on paper
frame: 1325 x 925 x 45 mm
support: 1190 x 790 mm
Purchased 2000© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London


And what are the effects of technology on this ongoing appropriation? Now that boundaries of authenticity and originality are even more blurred, artists (indeed anyone) can recycle and re-upload images, text and audio material more quickly and easily than ever before. Sampling, remixing and mashups proliferate online, and allow people to even adopt a social media profile that appropriates or parodies a well-known persona. But what is the right of the originator in all this? Can you copyright an idea? Or do you lose rights to control it when you put it in the public domain?

So, tell us what you think. When is appropriation of found material homage and when is it plagiarism?

Tate Debate sponsored by Vodafone


Here is the Cario v. prince court of appeal opinion.

Note: the definition of appropriate art Prince used in his defense was taken from the TATE dictionary :

In my opinion this decision will transform the Art World and unless reversed, I personally am going to be an "appropriate artist" because it simply not economic to be innovative, if your Moral Rights are being stepped on

It was one thing to deprive Van Gogh of his economical rights due to stupidity of curators at his time, and another to violate moral rights due greed in the name of "fair use" improperly applied for commercial proposes.


In that context the Getty Museum declaration in Facebook "Museum is for Elite" seems very appropriate.

The appropriation art was funded in France and one of it's objectives was taking a MONE ART object and integrating it in Art in a manner that is giving it a new contest. Starting from the 80ies and the POP ART Movement the US Artists "appropriated" objects at times that were inappropriate. Those artists were led by a very selective group of art dealers, demanded the US law will demand recognizing their right to use living artists copyright subject to the United States First Amendment, Fair Use. In order to do that, and due to their political and financial power, the term "transformative art" came into play and hence after, the United States Court entertained the term "Transformative Art".

In the case of Curio V. Prince the US court of appeal have termed that Appropriation Art does not need to make a comment of it's source, and waived the economical rights of Curio to earn from his work via licensing, subject to the First Amendment/ Fair Defense, although Prince who copied+paste from Curio, not only admitted to copy paste Curio, but also sells the derivative works in figures Curio can't compete and worded, publishes an unlimited series of such copies for commercial purposes via books etc. hence, the Fair Use limitations imposed under the Berne Convention were dismissed in the name of the US First Amendment, that as is, supposedly poses the same limitation.

In order to justify such act, the Court also declared that in the United States famous artists should not be treated equally as none famous artists. Because Prince sold for millions and among his collectors the court count De Niro etc. i.e. he has the right to use Curio art, and Curio can't claim for fair use, since Curio sold for few thousands. i.e. not only Curio was deprived of his defense to unfair competition, it was justified by means of discrimination between Famous and connected Artist, to Unknown and not connected Artist.

Like always, there are good sides and bad sides to any decision and things to ponder on: the good part is ANYONE can use American Living Artist are as the base for it's work to the extent that the main part of the work is copied without paying any licensing and the same applies to any US Museums items, and claim for appropriation. This is a blessing when is comes to digital art, the even better part is that you can "appropriate" without any need to make any comment the American Art / Artists works for commercial purposes.

Of course, it is unclear if Curio will file the case at the Supreme court and the verdict be reversed, however, for the time being, it is legal to snatch any US Artist copyrighted work and "Appropriate it" for free. It seems silly to pay photography agency isn't it ? The will serve very well many artist, more so at the digital art where you can copy paste appropriately in a matter of seconds.

So, now that we know that famous Artist have more and better rights then an unknoen Artists, the question we all must ask is : 1. Do I want to expose my art in the US, before I am famous ? The answer is probably you have a safer chance in Berlin.

2. Will the Berne Convention parties agree to the new definition of "Fair Use", i.e. creation of derivative works in a commercial scale and regardless the main part of the work was sampled: Note, this can be really really cool for a defense in remixing and sampling American Music: You can potentially sample a well known song, doing the same copy paste" and claim for "Appropriation" , you don't even need to make a comment, lets be honest, American Music is great for sampling.

3. Personally I debate if it's worthy striving being an Artist : practically, if you are not connected to the ADAA Dealers who sells the Appropriate Art starting from the 80ies to American celebrities, you are nothing regardless how genuine your work is, any American Artist is subject matter to the US law can sample you and will get by with it: conclusion, hide or make sure to who you show your art! If you decide it's still worthy creating, knowing that if you are not connected, you are not appropriate to equal treatment under the law.....

In the Curio v. Prince many Berne convention fundamentals been crossed. It's a matter of time for the rest of the Berne Convention to determine if such new interpretation of the law applies to the Berne Convention or stays in the US hood.

Question asked, if the king is naked, his son is a king or a bagger ?

Pri-Ya Philosopher, Yogi, Multi Skilled creative Human Being

I think there are a number of quite distinct questions at play here: there's the legal question of when does copyright infringement occur; there's the moral question of what constitutes plagiarism; there's the utilitarian question of whether free appropriation enhances or diminishes the overall creative output of a culture; and then there are a few aesthetic/critical questions about how works of art that employ appropriation should be valued.

I'm no lawyer so I'll leave the copyright problem aside.

Plagiarism in its generally agreed definition is usually restricted to deliberate acts of deceit: passing off the work of somebody else as your own. I think most people see this as pretty reprehensible behaviour, even if they are all for 'remixing' etc. For example, if I took a Beatles track and remixed the vocals over a James Brown backing track I wouldn't be hoodwinking anyone, some of you might well applaud my 'creativity' (for all the ten minutes effort it took me), and two sets of copyright lawyers would be down on me like several tons of bricks. But what if I were to record a faithful cover version of an original song that some penniless kid in Canada has uploaded to YouTube and then credit myself with writing the music and lyrics? In that case you would all (I hope) denounce me as a lying scoundrel, even if I played all the instruments myself. In short, _real_ plagiarism is not cool. (I believe that Hirst's feud with Cartrain was over copyright rather than plagiarism. For one thing the latter is not a crime. More importantly, there was never any question of Cartrain presenting 'For The Love of God' as his own artwork - the whole point of his piece was to refer very openly to Hirst.)

On the utilitarian issue, it is certainly true that, throughout their history, cultural forms have evolved largely through imitation, quotation and variation of previous models. In facts it would be hard to imagine a work of music, painting, sculpture, architecture or film that did not depend very heavily on earlier works, even down to the use of pretty direct copying or quotation. In this sense, no art is wholly new or original. So yes, free 'appropriation' - if you want to label this as such - is, in general, a good thing for human creativity. Without it, the visual arts would probably never have moved beyond hand prints on cave walls.

I think there's a case however for arguing that certain forms of appropriation risk squeezing out more vibrant forms of creativity. Listening to that piece about the Amen Break has got me thinking about this. OK, so record producers might have made some half-decent records by re-purposing that drum break to destruction. But would our musical culture perhaps be better served if record producers always had to pay a real live drummer to record rhythm tracks? In the process they would be fostering new generations of drumming talent to rival, and surely surpass, G. C. Coleman of the Winstons ( As it is, sampling technology means that we are too often fed a fairly monotonous diet of recycled funk beats from the 60s and 70s (a time when brilliantly creative musicians were found in abundance - and, naturally, were pinching each other’s ideas left right and centre). Meanwhile, it could be argued that in the world of Western pop music there is a relative dearth of innovative instrumentalists emerging today with the skill to generate truly new musical sounds. Obviously we still have drummers and bass players a-plenty, but how many of them are crafting new musical forms in the way that their predecessors did? That role has been largely taken over by DJs with their mixing and sampling equipment.

I’ll propose another, hypothetical doomsday example. Most of us are probably inclined to stick up for the enthusiasts who upload remixed clips from their favourite films and TV shows, in the face of the dead hand of corporate copyright departments. But imagine if all our TV channels decided that it would be really ‘now’ (and cost efficient) to scrap original drama and just start broadcasting this type of stuff in its place. For a while the underground cult status of the films would probably keep you amused; you might applaud the cheeky creativity of the video editors; and academic critics would probably gush over the polyvalent significations of the intertextual collage, or whatever. But after twenty years of watching recycled mash-ups of Star Wars and Cheers you might start asking: what happened to the script writers, and why have the drama schools started closing down? A far-fetched example to be sure but, together with the Amen Break, it illustrates a lurking issue with digital mechanisms for appropriation. Digital reproduction is great at enabling solitary individuals whose skills are primarily software-based to repurpose a vast archive of creative content that was generated by groups of people using old-fashioned analogue means. But this sort of all-digital ‘creativity’ is no good at replenishing that archive with fresh analogue content, particularly as the new generation of ‘creators’ become increasingly distant from the skills that were needed to create their source material. In the pre-digital days, covering an existing song still required a group of skilled musicians to be employed. The result would always be a new musical performance, sometimes better than the model, and there was also a good chance that the experience of playing other people’s material might inspire those musicians to create original music of their own. A DJ, on the other hand, may be a brilliant assembler of samples but can never come up with a brand new way to play the trumpet.

One would certainly like to hope that a healthy balance will always be preserved between analogue making and digital remixing, but I have to tell you that my expectation is that the former will lose ground to the latter. The costs of powerful digital technology continue to fall, while the cost of skilled human creative labour remains high. Those who package sell and distribute content are mostly driven by corporate imperatives to protect profit margins and can be expected to make increasing use of remixed content whenever they can get away with it.

Lastly, I listed the aesthetic/critical question of how appropriation should be valued as an artistic ‘gesture’ or ‘strategy’ (to use the sort of terminology that’s in vogue these days). When an artist makes self-conscious and overt use of appropriated material they may be entirely exempt from suspicions of devious plagiarism, and can easily avoid all taint of copyright infringement, but does their very act of appropriation add a new kind of artistic value to their work? Does it demonstrate that the appropriator is more knowing, clever, ironic or self-critical than the naïve creator of their source material? In most creative fields this would seem a bizarre proposition but, tragically in my judgement, this seems to be becoming a well-established view within the visual arts. A perfect illustration of this trend is the critical success of Kristleifur Björnsson’s ‘found’ photographs (some of which were included in Tate Modern’s ‘Street and Studio’ exhibition four years ago). Enlarging a JPEG that you found on the internet and then hanging it in an art gallery as an artwork with your own attached to it is now seen within the contemporary art establishment as an acceptable form of ‘practice’ (see This type of art makes me want to reinstate an older meaning of ‘practice’: to trick, deceive or ‘pull a fast one’ on some poor unsuspecting victim.

Cartrain's feud with Damien Hirst over whether or not his diamond skull was plagiarised. And this week, Kate Moross launched a twitter attack on Top Man for ripping off one of her prints. And what about the defaced Rothko? Is re-purposing really creating new art or just jumping on the bandwagon?... I'm personally unsure where I stand on any of these issues, I think intelligent art does reference other art, but I can't draw a line between referencing and out-and-out copying, and what about renaissance art - can you plagiarise a centuries-dead painter?

The idea of appropriation seems to come across as more acceptable in music than it seems to in art - great links John!

Over the years certain rifts such as 'the endless permutations of the Amen Break" and knock-offs find their way into the charts, it takes you a moment then you realise... 'I can't believe they did that to that song!' .

But it has been repurposed, remixed, legally and I would argue as a result whole a new set of ideas are allowed to happen, enabled out of the appropration. When talking about art, plagarism seems to come into play so readily - when is there really anything inherently new anymore and can it be said that one idea stands completely alone, ex nihilo from another? No man, muscian or artist is an island.

In another homage to homage, Beyonce & Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker:

John Stack's picture

There's a great series of short films by Kirby Ferguson in which he argues that all culture is based on a direct or indirect (but mostly direct) repurposing of exisiting cultural artefacts.

Watch the films here and watch the related TED talk here

In his artwork Can I Get An Amen? (2004) on the famous amen break, Nate Harrison argues that when the ability to repurpose cultural content is flexible that this results in an increase in creativity and therefore capital.

I am inclined to agree with both of them.