Yassin, reuse and copyright

Posted on: July 29, 2015 by

Those adventurous enough to explore the London area of Holland Park for their cultural fix (there is opera in the park after all), may have come across the house of Frederic (Lord) Leighton, which is open to the public as a museum. Leighton, who was President of the Royal Academy during the late Nineteenth Century, created the Victorian collector’s house par excellence. The place is a mix of artefacts from Ancient Persia, Syria and Egypt (one may wonder in passing about permits and export licenses), panels by Corot and a roundel from Delacroix, not to mention the owner’s own pre-Raphaelite works, which hang on the upper floor. There is also an indoor fountain. Somehow it all works.

But the current special exhibition at Leighton House caught our eye. It features the Lebanese artist Raed Yassin, who is also known as a musician and DJ. Yassin has brought to the House something entirely new: postmodern interpretations of his own family’s history and the tragic events of his homeland. In the room we find blue and white Chinese porcelain vases depicting scenes from the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990. But most interesting are the tapestries. These are stitched recreations of family photographs taken during the 1980s, done in bright colours, against patterned (often floral) backdrops.


Raed Yassin, ‘The Flying Kid’

One cannot help but think about copyright. More as a meditation than anything else. Here we have a display of copies of original artistic works (photographs), which though they have changed form and medium, are still constitutive of copies for the purposes of the UK’s governing copyright law, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. And these photos would still be in copyright, at least in the UK, where copyright lasts for the life of the photographer plus 70 years.

Family photos can be tricky to pin down. Who took the picture? A parent, uncle, aunt, cousin, friend, passerby? If the rightholder can’t be found, is it an ‘orphan work’? Could a license be obtained? Sometimes getting the copyright ‘cleared’ (to use the industry lingo) can be a nightmare. We often assume that because something is our own (the physical manifestation of the photograph) that we can use it as we wish, including reproducing it in another medium. But intangible rights are not quite so simple. We are often forced to track down the mysterious finger-clicker (or often some unaware and bemused descendant). Either that or we use it and run the risk…

Raed Yassin, 'Family Portrait with Peacock'

Raed Yassin, ‘Family Portrait with Peacock’

It is probably only in cases where the original photographer was a professional (either an artist or otherwise) that a dispute would arise. Something akin to this happened when French photographer Patrick Cariou’s pictures were used without permission by American appropriation artist Richard Prince. And we know how that ended. When dealing with non-professional ‘authors’, these sorts of issues likely never make it to court. But they remain important considerations when creating (and exhibiting) reproductive works.

If you’re interested in the Yassin exhibit (or these tangential musings on copyright law), find more information here. Note that the show finishes this week (2 August).