Teresa Scassa - Blog

Wednesday, 04 September 2013 13:34

Copyright and the visual arts: new court decision

Written by Teresa Scassa

A recent decision of the Ontario Supreme Court offers a relatively rare glimpse into how copyright laws are applied to artistic works in Canada.

The plaintiff in this case, visual artist Malcolm Rains, painted a series of oil paintings over a period of 22 years. He calls this series the “Classical Series” and it currently comprises over 200 paintings. Each of these paintings is a still life of a sheet of crumpled paper against a particular background. The defendant is visual artist Lucian Bogdan Molea. In 2000, Molea began painting still lifes of crumpled paper. Rains brought suit against Molea, arguing that he had infringed his copyright in individual canvases, as well as in his series as a compilation.

Justice Chiappetta began her analysis by considering whether copyright subsisted in the individual canvasses painted by Rains and in the series. She found that the plaintiff’s canvasses met the standard of originality set out by the Supreme Court of Canada, notwithstanding the fact that the he “employed commonplace tropes used by painters for centuries”. The paintings emanated from Rains and were not copies of other works; they also reflected an exercise in skill and judgment that was more than trivial. She rejected the argument that the paintings amounted to an unprotectable merger of idea and expression. Justice Chiappetta noted that the idea was to paint a still life of a crumpled piece of paper; the expression of the idea was found in each individual painting. Recognizing copyright in the paintings did not give Rains a monopoly over the idea.

Although she found that each painting was protected by copyright, Justice Chiappetta reached a different conclusion with respect to the series. It was argued that the series was itself a distinct work, namely, a compilation. To be protected, a compilation must be an original expression that reflects an exercise of skill and judgment. In the case of the series of paintings, there was a concept, and a progression of canvases, but there was not the exercise of skill and judgment necessary to create a compilation. She explained: “There is no originality in the label itself, there is no skilful organizational aspect of the Classical Series that warrants protection for the series as a whole.” (at para 17) The paintings were not specifically selected and/or arranged as part of a collection; rather, the series was an open-ended and evolving category of works. Justice Chiappetta also rejected arguments that the series should be considered a compilation because it evokes a common feeling or “gestalt”. She stated: “it would be unwise to extend copyright protection to the visual perception of an artistic work, which is intangible and subjective.” (at para 22).

Having determined that copyright subsisted in the plaintiff’s individual paintings, Justice Chiappetta next considered whether Molea’s works infringed upon those copyrights. At the outset she dismissed any similarities between the works that were due to “common, long-established artistic techniques”. She also found that these similarities represented “a substantial part of the respective works.” (at para 30) She noted that painting crumpled paper “has been employed as a model since the French Academy was founded in 1664”. (at para 35) Painting it on a flat surface had similarly been around for at least 200 years. She also noted that the choice of certain colours for backgrounds also reflected long established practices. However, Justice Chiappetta was careful to clarify that she was not imposing a “novelty” standard for the protection of artworks under copyright law; rather, an artist: “cannot establish infringement by relying on his use of the noted unoriginal, commonplace, historical painting techniques. This would be akin to Shakespeare relying on his use of iambic pentameter in his writing or Drake relying on his use of 16 bars to a verse in his music.” (at para 40). In other words, the scope of protection available to copyright works must not be so broad as to give rightsholders a monopoly over techniques or practices. Ultimately she found that there were sufficient dissimilarities between the works to conclude that Rains’ canvasses were not the result of copyright infringement, but were original works in their own right.

In rejecting arguments that the defendant’s works might be mistaken for those of the plaintiff, Justice Chiappetta also made an important distinction between a confusion analysis and the analysis required for copyright infringement. A confusion analysis is more common in trademark law, where the question is whether the defendant’s trademark creates confusion in with that used by the plaintiff. Since a trademark is meant to serve as an indicator of source; misrepresenting one’s products or services as those of another is at the heart of trademark infringement. In the copyright context, however, it is not enough to argue that the work of one person is evocative of the work of another, absent proof of infringement. In the words of Justice Chiappetta: “it would be unwise to establish confusion as the test for colourable imitation of an artistic work. This test by its very nature lends itself to the subjective nuances of comparison [. . . ]”. (at para 44) “Confusion” in the context of art might be the result of the use of fairly similar techniques or methods. Further, copyright law allows for independent creation – the creation of even identical works can be tolerated so long as one was not the result of copying of the other.

Justice Chiappetta’s findings on the issue of access are also interesting. Because independent creation is always a theoretically possible explanation of substantially similar works, there must be some evidence that the defendant had access to the works that he or she allegedly copied. In this case, it was clear that Molea had previously seen a number of canvasses in Rains’ series. However, Justice Chiappetta found that this general access to a broad spectrum of work by Rains was not sufficient. Rather, it was necessary to show specific access to those particular works which were allegedly copied. She also refused to presume access on the basis that Molea had only commenced painting canvasses featuring crumpled paper after his move to Canada, when he would first have been exposed to the works of Rains. She found that Molea had provided a logical explanation for the evolution of his work over time.

This case is interesting in its application of copyright principles to the visual arts in a context where it is necessary to separate both concept and techniques and methods from the work itself. A finding of infringement in a case such as this would make it difficult for anyone to paint a crumpled piece of paper without fear of a finding of copyright infringement.

The federal government is calling for comments on its Year One progress on Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government. The government is seeking feedback on two main questions, namely: how it has done in meeting its commitments under the Action Plan; which commitments still require the most attention. They are also seeking more general feedback in the form of comments or suggestions regarding its Open Government initiative. The consultation opened on August 19, 2013 and will close on September 9, 2013.

<< Start < Prev 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 Next > End >>
Page 34 of 44

Canadian Trademark Law

Published in 2015 by Lexis Nexis

Canadian Trademark Law 2d Edition

Buy on LexisNexis

Electronic Commerce and Internet Law in Canada, 2nd Edition

Published in 2012 by CCH Canadian Ltd.

Electronic Commerce and Internet Law in Canada

Buy on CCH Canadian

Intellectual Property for the 21st Century

Intellectual Property Law for the 21st Century:

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Purchase from Irwin Law