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"This is like the opposite of Vivian Maier"
March 4, 2014 8:32 AM   Subscribe

(Warning: most links contain artistic nudes) In February, Chicago curator Paul-David Young announced a gallery show featuring found, sometimes nude self portraits from an unknown artist. Claiming to not know the identity of the artist, Young romanticized the unknown origins of the photos, implied the artist was impossible to find, and drew parallels with the Vivian Maier story. After some light digging, however, Animal New York was quickly able to identify the subject as digital artist Molly Soda, who has a popular presence on YouTube and Tumblr.

After the Animal story was published, Young quickly admitted that he had already uncovered the identity of the artist behind the self-portraits, and claimed he unsuccessfully tried to contact her through Craigslist and Tumblr. Young's appropriation of Soda's work raises interesting questions as to when it is acceptable to use someone else's work in your own artwork, the ethical duty to correctly attribute the original work, and the necessity of gaining permission from the original artist. Responding to the Animal story, Young responded, “I do not think of these as Molly Soda’s photographs”. Interestingly, when informed about the gallery show, Molly Soda had this to say:

"I think it’s wild he found my photos. I threw them all out when I was moving out of my house in Chicago to Detroit. They were all like copies that I didn’t want or bad prints... It’s funny ’cause I always talk about ownership and letting go of ownership once you put something on the Internet, so it’s interesting that this is happening IRL too."
posted by I Havent Killed Anybody Since 1984 (45 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't this a pretty straightforward case of copyright infringement? Possession of the prints doesn't imply ownership of the underlying copyright to a work. Unless Young did something transformative enough with the works to warrant a distinct copyright, he's screwed if Soda wants to pursue it. I don't see how grabbing some prints out of a trash bin and displaying them is really "transformative", either.

Such is the risk you take with found-prints art projects; you're gambling that the original artist either won't ever find out about your reuse, they won't care, or you're really confident that the specifics of your reuse is enough to pass the transformative-use sniff test.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:42 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I'm really impressed by the remarkably even-handed response from Soda. I'm sure that if someone found nude pictures of me in the trash and put them up in a gallery my statement would begin with "he whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!?" and end with me breathing into a bag.
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:52 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


So, it finally happened, looking through her tumblr made me feel old.
posted by oddman at 8:53 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Sounds like a case of someone knowing the truth and spinning a yarn for dramatic effect. Everything sells better with a well-placed stunt and too-good-to-be-true canard.

It's just these days, old schooling it gets uncovered real fast with this pesky Internet thing...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:54 AM on March 4


This is so brash on the part of the curator I have to wonder if the whole thing is not some sort of stunt. It seems obvious that Molly Soda has a very public persona, but for the curator to know who the artist is and not give her any credit, to instead frame her as "unknown" and/or "anonymous" is...problematic. And yet not unexpected, given the complete lack of interest in citation in the platform that Molly Soda seems to know and participate in.
posted by theefixedstars at 8:58 AM on March 4


No need to feel old Oddman, her website looks like a Myspace page.
posted by Yowser at 9:00 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


"Information wants to be free" sounds like a curse similar to "May you live in interesting times".
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:17 AM on March 4 [6 favorites]


I'm blown away at the idea that somebody would find nude self-portraits and think showing them publicly was acceptable behavior.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:17 AM on March 4 [13 favorites]


It makes perfect sense if you realize that people do that all the time on the internet. Extend that line of thought to physical space isn't such a huge leap, particularly when you consider that said physical space will be viewed by a smaller number of people.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:23 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


"This is like the opposite of Vivian Maier"

It's like the opposite of many things, but let's throw Vivian Maier in because SEO and page hits and ad traffic and people need to hear about the show and all that. Also: not sure if tumblr link is a Geocities parody or not.
posted by lawrencium at 9:24 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


I know someone who sells cheap trinkets on Etsy every Christmas. She spends October looking for artwork on the Internet that she likes, then takes screenshots/downloads the images and uploads them to the manufacturer who makes the trinkets. I challenged her once on the legality of the whole thing, and her stated attitude was that if it's on the Internet, she can use it for whatever she wants. She was not even slightly open to a conversation about it. I no longer associate with this person, as you can imagine.

That this happens on a more formal stage like this should probably surprise me, but it doesn't.
posted by davejay at 9:27 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


If you don't feel old when looking at her page you don't understand what she's trying to do enough
posted by todayandtomorrow at 10:00 AM on March 4


Young ...drew parallels with the Vivian Maier story

Well...kinda sorta. Is saying "this is like the opposite of Vivian Maier" really "drawing parallels"?

Isn't this a pretty straightforward case of copyright infringement


I don't know, is it? Could one of Metafilter's law-talking-people clarify that? If I painted a painting and then left it at the side of the road, do I still have any rights over the painting and its future display/reproduction? Is the case different with photographs (which are inherently multiples)? Copyright law is weird enough that I can believe that this issue might not be as straightforward as it seems--but I really don't know.
posted by yoink at 10:02 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


If you don't feel old when looking at her page you don't understand what she's trying to do enough

I feel old just at the mention of Tumblr.

Oh, who am I kidding. I feel old at the mention of the internet.
posted by yoink at 10:03 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Wow. That tumblr is the most consummate performative expression of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl I've ever seen. I'm simultaneously repulsed and attracted in equal amounts.
posted by dis_integration at 10:06 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


In photography in the US, the moment you click the shutter, you have created and own the copyright. There are exceptions--work-for-hire agreements for one--but I've never heard that disposing of a physical print voids the copyright.
posted by girlmightlive at 10:13 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


If I painted a painting and then left it at the side of the road, do I still have any rights over the painting and its future display/reproduction?

I'm not a law-talker, but yes. This is copyright 101, you own copyright implicitly unless you release it. Are you thinking it would be different because this is visual arts? It isn't -- physically owning a print or even original work doesn't mean you own the copyright, unless the artist released it to you.
posted by advil at 10:14 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


(Sorry, that came out snarkier than I intended, the copyright 101 thing is just meant to imply that the same basics that work for better known media work for art -- I actually only learned about this a few weeks ago myself.)
posted by advil at 10:15 AM on March 4


yoink: Well...kinda sorta. Is saying "this is like the opposite of Vivian Maier" really "drawing parallels"?

To my mind, Young was specifically invoking Vivian Maier to indirectly compare the intriguing aspects of Maier's story and work with "his" work; so as to get readers to subconsciously associate the "found", "unknown", and "cool story" aspects of Maier's work with his show.
posted by I Havent Killed Anybody Since 1984 at 10:16 AM on March 4


This is copyright 101, you own copyright implicitly unless you release it. Are you thinking it would be different because this is visual arts?

No, I was wondering what the legal status of abandoned work is and whether there is any specific statutory language or generally recognized case law that applies to it. Your link is talking about sold work, where copyright is very clear. I'm wondering if abandoning a work is taken to imply abandoning your copyright in the work or not.

To be clear, I'm not asserting that there is any difference or that there should be; I just do not know.
posted by yoink at 10:26 AM on March 4


No, I was wondering what the legal status of abandoned work is and whether there is any specific statutory language or generally recognized case law that applies to it.

In the US as far as I know there is no way to implicitly abandon copyright (of any sort), you must intentionally do it in specific ways. There is a concept of orphaned work that clearly doesn't apply in this case (despite the curator's initial protestations, which now that I think about it, seemed designed to position this work as orphaned..).
posted by advil at 10:40 AM on March 4


In the US as far as I know there is no way to implicitly abandon copyright (of any sort

Hmmm. Interesting. There are a lot of modern and contemporary artists who work with reclaimed trash of various kinds (see e.g. this project). I wonder what the legal status of the materials they use is? I mean, let's say I draw a doodle on a can of tomato soup and then toss that can in the recycling, and an artist incorporates that can--plus doodle--into a work of art. Can I sue the artist for using my work without attribution/permission?
posted by yoink at 10:52 AM on March 4


You'd have a more successful case if you registered that can with the US Copyright Office.
posted by girlmightlive at 10:58 AM on March 4


I mean, let's say I draw a doodle on a can of tomato soup and then toss that can in the recycling, and an artist incorporates that can--plus doodle--into a work of art.

I really only know anything about the audio / electronic music side of things, where copyright issues for sampling are basically a huge mess these days after a few decades of complex lawsuits (and most non-rich / non-label / non-provacateur artists take substantial care to avoid using any non-cleared samples in my experience; fair use rights don't seem to count for much any more). A similar (but less litigious?) situation seems to exist for collage, I guess that is the closest to this case.
posted by advil at 11:01 AM on March 4


And, come to think of it, I've seen a number of art works that are based on old snapshots bought at junkshops etc. Are those also vulnerable to copyright challenges if one of the subjects or the photographers happens to wander into the gallery and say "hey, that's my photo!"?
posted by yoink at 11:08 AM on March 4


"There was something performative, he thought, in the photographer's self-portraits, of which there were many."

There's something performative about an art school student taking self-portraits? No WAY. Gosh, he's brilliant.

Based on the follow-up interview he does with Animal, I kinda want to punch him.
posted by desuetude at 11:21 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


It looks like Richard Prince's triumph over his victim Patrick Cariou has emboldened the field of would-be Princes. As a one-time semi pro photographer I found the Prince result outrageous, but he at least blocked out the faces of his victim's photographic subjects and inserted collage elements, if not enough to make the source photos hard to identify.

However even that does not rise to the level of profiting from the publication of another person's identifiable nude selfies with hardly any modification at all. I hope the Catholic Church is considering Molly Soda for sainthood, because if some motherfucker did this to me legal action would be the least of his worries.
posted by localroger at 11:35 AM on March 4


A lot of Tumblr looks like that, but your followers usually only see your posts on their dashboards, which are a lot more bland. It's basically the new LiveJournal more than the new MySpace.
posted by Sequence at 11:35 AM on March 4


However even that does not rise to the level of profiting from the publication of another person's identifiable nude selfies with hardly any modification at all.

Is he "profiting"? He's not presenting the work as his own, but as "anonymous." Will the works be for sale?
posted by yoink at 11:46 AM on March 4


I assume somebody is paying for the gallery space somehow, and it isn't Molly Soda.
posted by localroger at 11:47 AM on March 4


If the show is a success than he profits in that his reputation as an artist (and intellectual) is improved. So whether or not the pictures at the show are for sale, his work will be made more valuable. (Well, maybe not now.)
posted by oddman at 2:59 PM on March 4


If the show is a success than he profits in that his reputation as an artist (and intellectual) is improved.

I don't think he's claiming any status as an "artist." He is claiming solely to be the "curator" of this show (which, from the gallery's advertising, seems to be a show of "found" images from multiple sources, not just Molly Soda's.
posted by yoink at 5:15 PM on March 4


re: the copyright issue

I'm in the armchair on this, but I'm not sure copyright applies here. If dude isn't reproducing or copying the art, but actually displaying the found physical works, I think a different part of the law applies. This could become more or less complicated by the abandonment issue.

On the Molly Soda reaction: I think this is how the average Tumblr user should react. If everything is fair game to repurpose and reuse on the Internet (regardless of copyright), why not real life?
posted by cult_url_bias at 6:57 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


You should not use pictures taken by people who are not you without negotiated permission, nor of people who are not you without model releases, ever for anything. How fucking hard is that?

If you draw three circles in the wrong relationship and publish them a certain multinational corporation will come down on you with the force of a thousand ninja lawyers.

But you publish (and if putting a photo on the wall of a gallery where the world is invited to come in and ogle it to enhance your reputation, I don't know what the fuck "publication" means) naked pictures of a strange woman why the fuck aren't you on a sex offender registry, let alone in civil court for damages?
posted by localroger at 7:07 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


yoink: "I don't think he's claiming any status as an "artist." He is claiming solely to be the "curator" of this show (which, from the gallery's advertising, seems to be a show of "found" images from multiple sources, not just Molly Soda's."

It's a form of conceptual art. He created an installation intended to make an artistic statement, using found objects as the medium.
posted by desuetude at 9:05 PM on March 4


Yeah, but that's a total stretch on copyright claims — otherwise, no work that was previously sold could be publicly displayed without a specific license. The right to reproduce her work and distribute it would be controlled, but just to show it? That's an insane claim of copyright maximalism.
posted by klangklangston at 10:46 PM on March 4


The right to reproduce her work and distribute it would be controlled, but just to show it? That's an insane claim of copyright maximalism.

Is this really true? The analogous right for music is standardly protected by copyright, though it might well be considered maximalism (in practice it seems like mainly large corporations / ASCAP benefit from this one).

I went digging and the law actually seems to be pretty clear; "§ 106 . Exclusive rights in copyrighted works. Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: ... (5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; ..."

There are a whole raft of exceptions including fair use and also various reasonable cases (public display in commercial spaces such as restaurants) that I haven't tried to parse out, and maybe things are more complicated when you look at court cases, but I'm pretty sure the right to publicly show visual arts is protected, just as performance rights are for music.
posted by advil at 7:08 AM on March 5


Nope: "(c) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(5), the owner of a particular copy lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to display that copy publicly, either directly or by the projection of no more than one image at a time, to viewers present at the place where the copy is located."

U.S. Copyright Code.

As discarded or trashed copies are abandoned by their owners (something most frequently seen in cases where police go through someone's trash for evidence), displaying the copy is not an exclusive right for the creator. Under VARA, she is entitled to be identified as the artist, but can't prevent display.
posted by klangklangston at 8:29 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


It's a form of conceptual art. He created an installation intended to make an artistic statement, using found objects as the medium.

No, that's just simply not true. He is not presenting this as a work of art that he produced by creatively assembling these discarded photos. He is presenting it as "anonymous" work that he has curated.

Klangklangston--thanks, that answers my question. So there's really nothing that Molly Soda could do about it, right? Even if she personally didn't want these photographs displayed, there'd be no legal impediment to displaying them in the gallery, whether you attribute them to "Anonymous" or to "Molly Soda" or to whatever her birth name is.
posted by yoink at 8:48 AM on March 5


If you don't feel old when looking at her page you don't understand what she's trying to do enough

Enough? I don't understand at all. It looks like one of tens hundreds of thousands of other Tumblr pages. Is it some sort of meta-commentary?
posted by MikeMc at 9:56 AM on March 5


The guy is pretty slimy. That said, Section 109 specifically allows for gallery shows of specific copies of works:
(c) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106 (5), the owner of a particular copy lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to display that copy publicly, either directly or by the projection of no more than one image at a time, to viewers present at the place where the copy is located.
His use of the images in promotional material, however, is in violation of copyright law but unless she registered the works the damages would be limited to "actual" rather than punitive damages.
posted by Candleman at 10:53 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


> No, that's just simply not true. He is not presenting this as a work of art that he produced by creatively assembling these discarded photos. He is presenting it as "anonymous" work that he has curated.

Yes it is! No it's not! Believe you me, I'm not deeming him to be an artist per se. But the question was whether Paul-David Young is, as oddman pointed out, profiting by the value to his reputation as an artist and intellectual.

Yes, you are correct about his narrative -- that he is curating an exhibition of anonymous found art.

But he's not a curator of this exhibit, he's a "curator."

A curator would not be interested in ignoring the known name of the photographer in favor of their own invented myth of an unknown, unknowable photographer. Paul-David Young made an artistic choice, "a conscious decision to withhold her identity," because the idea of a real human behind the camera interferes with the ideas about art that he wants to convey. That is why I would consider this exhibition to be the creation of a sort of art piece that falls under the umbrella of conceptual art.

I don't think there is a copyright issue here so much as it is an issue of ethics and hubris, though.
posted by desuetude at 9:31 PM on March 5


"Klangklangston--thanks, that answers my question. So there's really nothing that Molly Soda could do about it, right? Even if she personally didn't want these photographs displayed, there'd be no legal impediment to displaying them in the gallery, whether you attribute them to "Anonymous" or to "Molly Soda" or to whatever her birth name is."

I gotta cop to not being a total expert on VARA — the moral rights thing is really murky, and I just haven't kept up with the law enough to have a confident answer.

That said, I think she would have a civil claim if she'd asked to be identified and Young refused. Or if he had mutilated the work. Outside of that, people who own physical objects get significant property rights that copyright owners would love to abrogate, which is why it's worthwhile to be dubious of the maximalist copyright claims that e.g. this is a new, derivative work.

"A curator would not be interested in ignoring the known name of the photographer in favor of their own invented myth of an unknown, unknowable photographer. Paul-David Young made an artistic choice, "a conscious decision to withhold her identity," because the idea of a real human behind the camera interferes with the ideas about art that he wants to convey. That is why I would consider this exhibition to be the creation of a sort of art piece that falls under the umbrella of conceptual art."

Curators have done this for years, though. And especially curators attached to galleries have made conceptual and, well, curatorial choices for years. Redefining "curator" outward is a thing that's happening now, but it's not particularly that much of a shift.

It's the difference between denying he's a curator and arguing he's a bad curator.
posted by klangklangston at 9:52 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


> Curators have done this for years, though. And especially curators attached to galleries have made conceptual and, well, curatorial choices for years. Redefining "curator" outward is a thing that's happening now, but it's not particularly that much of a shift.

I see what you're saying, and I acknowledge that it's a fine line, especially considering the tendency toward academic stubbornness in traditional curation...with bonus murk from being in meta territory here. But based on his comments around knowing the identity of the photographer, I take away that he would consider his role of "curator" to be performative as well.

Either way, I think he's Doing It Wrong, and mistaking falsehood for fiction, whether as a bad curator or a bad artist.
posted by desuetude at 11:03 PM on March 5


After looking into it a bit, it appears Young has a fig leaf of legality here mainly because exhibitions are specifically exempted from the definition of "publication" in the copyright law itself. I can see the logic of that, but this is definitely an abuse of what amounts to a loophole.

And should he ever do anything with the pictures that can be defined as publication -- and the publicity stills for his gallery show are about this close to that line -- he is fried, both for appropriating Soda's work without her permission and for using her recognizable image without permission (which would be illegal even if he had taken the pictures himself).

He may also be on the wrong side of some of the new laws being passed to discourage revenge porn, depending on where he is and exactly how those laws are worded. What he did certainly strikes me as being about as rapey as it gets without actually sticking part of your body where it isn't wanted.
posted by localroger at 9:54 AM on March 6


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