Copyright's Illogical Exclusion of Conceptual Art
21 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2017
Date Written: October 2, 2015
This Essay argues that copyright illogically excludes conceptual art from protection on the basis of fixation, given that well-settled case law has interpreted the fixation requirement to reach works that contain certain kinds of change so long as they are sufficiently repetitive to be deemed permanent. While conceptual art may perhaps be better left outside the scope of copyright protection on the basis of its failure to meet copyright’s other requirements, this Essay concludes that fixation should not be the basis on which to exclude conceptual art from protection. There are of course both normative and descriptive questions around the copyright-ability of conceptual art; this Essay addresses itself primarily to the descriptive question of fixation, and whether works of art that contain change, by design, must be excluded.
Part I surveys the rationales for the fixation requirement and discusses the case law holding that works of art that change may still qualify for protection, culminating in the puzzling decision to the contrary in Kelley v. Chicago Park District. Part II offers a taxonomy of different kinds of conceptual art that could be seen as “inherently changeable,” and argues that these categories should be understood and treated distinctly. Finally, this Essay concludes that Kelley’s overly broad “inherently changeable” test threatens to exclude from copyright protection many different kinds of conceptual art on the basis that their changing or changeable nature renders them unfixed. Some of these works are analogous to the changing works that have been protected through copyright in spite of their internal change, like the video games, and some of them diverge in ways that might or might not be relevant for copyright law. I conclude that courts should be wary of relying on Kelley and should treat different kinds of conceptual art differently depending on what kind of art they are adjudicating.
Note: This Essay is based on a talk at the Kernochan Center Annual Symposium, "Copyright Outside the Box," at Columbia Law School, October 2, 2015.
Keywords: conceptual art, copyright, fixation, VARA, visual arts, moral rights
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