Home > Art, Weekend Feature, Weird and Interesting > Yes Rasta lawsuit threatens repurposed art, internet memes

Yes Rasta lawsuit threatens repurposed art, internet memes

Canal Zone Richard Prince

An image from Richard Prince’s “Canal Zone”.

Intellectual property, copyright infringement and the very existence of internet memes are at stake in a multi-million dollar lawsuit over some repurposed photographs.

French photographer Patrick Cariou wants to see American artist Richard Prince’s “Canal Zone” series destroyed because, he contends, Prince’s reuse of Cariou’s photos was done without the photographer’s consent.

In 2000, Cariou published a book of black and white photographs called Yes, Rasta which contained – you guessed it – pictures of Rastafarians. Then, in 2008, Prince found the book and cut it up, scribbled on it and pasted it back together to create a series of images that would become celebrated pieces of art in their own right. Cariou sued Prince and demanded that the paintings, some of which had already been sold for millions of dollars, be destroyed. He won the case in March 2011.

Cariou Yes Rasta

A photo from Patrick Cariou’s Yes, Rasta book.

In Cariou’s view, the issue is not that Prince reworked the photos, but that he did it for personal profit. The “Canal Zone” images are valued in the millions of dollars, and Cariou contends that that worth is built off of the value of his own images. He also believes his work has been damaged by Prince’s use of it.

Prince contends that he simply put together images of the real world in a different way, and did not steal Cariou’s art. His defense leans heavily on the principle of fair use, which allows copyrighted material to be used without permission for commentary, research, news reporting and search engines. He contends that his pictures are a commentary on the original.

Prince defended the photo below to a judge. “He plays the guitar now. It looks like he’s always played the guitar, that’s what my message was.”

Yes Rasta guitar Patrick Cariou vs Richard Prince

Patrick Cariou’s original photo (left) and Richard Prince’s reworked version (right).

Prince basically gave these Rasta men the Jimi Hendrix experience, and he’s been doing this sort of thing for years. Many other artists do it too – it’s the equivalent of writing your own motivational poster on the internet. “I had limited technical skills regarding the camera,” Prince told Art Forum Magazine. “I had no skills … I used a cheap commercial laboratory to blow up the pictures … I never went in a darkroom.”`

drunk baby demotivational

10 minutes with Photoshop produces similar results.

With Cariou’s 2011 victory, Prince was ordered to destroy the paintings. The artist has since appealed that order and both sides eagerly await a decision.

The whole case has some media heavies tugging at their collars. Google, Getty Images, the Warhol Foundation and others filed briefs at Prince’s appeal. Google took a neutral stance, Getty favoured Cariou and the Warhol Foundation took Prince’s side. The fact that they came out at all shows how much this decision might resonate.

Was Prince wrong to appropriate the photos without permission? Does Cariou have a legitimate argument that “Canal Zone” has damaged his reputation? And is it right to destroy Prince’s art if it is found to be illegal?

Keep an eye on this one. It could affect your next Google search.

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