The Big Ooops

February 10, 2011

original photo of Nils Johan Miena

I’m taking a course right now in “Business Issues for Artists”. All the stuff they never teach you in Art School, but things you definitely stumble upon as you make your way in the world. We are just finishing the “Legal” module. Last night for the final exam we had to describe an artistic-legal situation (problem and solution) of our choosing. My choice was easy enough to select from my own experience. Here’s the recap:

In 1978, fresh from university and ready to become a famous artist, I fell in love with a photograph from National Geographic. It was an image of a beautiful young Lapp boy leaning against a shed, wearing the traditional costume of the Saami people: pictured here top, right. Very colorful image. Lovely portrait. Nice light.

Nils, #21, egg tempera

I decided to paint the photograph by breaking up the image into 64 equally sized squares. My idea was to treat each square differently, with a different ground, texture and painting technique. It was a fantastic way to become acquainted with many different techniques simultaneously; to discover how each one reflects light and renders color – differently. You can view the final result here. This early experiment showed me very clearly which surfaces I liked and which I didn’t (acrylic gesso got a big “ugh”) in a purely tactile way, introducing me to my own temperament. I highly recommend the experiment. However, I was totally oblivious to copyright laws!

Nils, #15, Oil

Soon after creating this project I experienced an abrupt personal and stylistic change. “Nils” went into storage and I moved out west. 25 years later, I pulled “Nils” out of storage to see if I could finally sell this little experiment of mine. He had weathered the storage time beautifully so I set him up on my website and in an exhibition space with the intention to sell. However, I was still totally oblivious to copyright laws, until one day it dawned upon me……ooooops! Big oops.  Copyright.

Nils, #53, encaustic

The long and short of it is that I contacted National Geographic who gave me the information I needed to contact the original photographer of the image, Eric Borg. Which I did. I explained the situation and we agreed upon a shared percentage of the sales price and that was that. I did finally sell the piece, so now the laws have been honored, my closet got cleaned and an old friend of mine is the happy owner of this early experiment of mine. The moral of the story is don’t assume printed material belongs to you, just because you buy the magazine or book. If you use a “found” image, either research its copyright, change it so that it is thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly) unrecognizable, or be ready to pay the piper.

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