Of Stained Glass and Pyramids: Copyright and Art

In Hawaii there is a stained glass picture of a hula dancer that can never be publicly displayed or sold. Showing a female dancer in the "ike" position, kneeling with one hand outstretched and the other at her ear, the stained glass panel's creator was forced to agree to these terms and pay $60,000 in legal fees to photographer Kim Taylor Reese, who claimed the picture was based on her hula dancer photograph of 1988. Reese says the case was only about the photograph, while critics argue she is trying to do no less than lay claim to a traditional hula pose. Native Hawaiians see the case as part of a larger pattern of outsiders trying to trademark island culture for their own purposes and profit.

Such legal actions have elicited a backlash response from many artists, who now consider their ability to draw from cultural imagery compromised and threatened. The term "copyright civil disobedience" has been coined to describe artworks created deliberately to infringe. Turning the tables, one cheeky artist even trademarked the phrase "freedom of expression," and then sent a major US company a cease-and-desist letter when it used the phrase in an advertisement.

The most recent copyright news has raised eyebrows around the world. The nation of Egypt is planning on passing a law that would copyright the country's famous pyramids, sphinx and all museum objects. Royalty payments would be due from anyone reproducing precise copies for commercial use. Complaining that the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, shaped like a pyramid, generates more tourist revenue than the real pyramids, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities argues that they need such royalties to maintain the real monuments. While the "precise" copy requirement would be fairly easy to get around, museum stores which regularly sell Egyptian reproductions, might have difficulties if the Egyptians discover a way to enforce their new law abroad. As one British commentator said, "Quick! Hide your pyramids."

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