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Robert Lang
A comparison of Robert Lang's design for his "Cooper's Hawk" with Sarah Morris' painting, Falcon


May 10, 2011

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Everyone already knows that yBa artist Sarah Morris -- celebrated for brightly colored abstractions that are part early Frank Stella, part Larry Zox, and that have sold for more than $160,000 at auction -- is an appropriation artist. She admits that works from her recent "Origami Series," which began in 2007 and consists of almost 40 paintings, are based on the abstract diagrams used to make those traditional Japanese decorative sculptures. [Image: Sarah Morris, Falcon.]

But now, in yet another manifestation of the mania for copyright lawsuits against contemporary artists, a group of six origami artists -- headed by one Robert Lang, said to be the world's most famous origami artist -- have sued Morris in Federal Court in Oakland, Ca., for using what they say are their original, and copyrighted, origami crease patterns as a source for the layout of the shapes in her paintings. According to Lang's website, the plaintiffs have identified 24 Morris works that are "unauthorized copies" of origami patterns. Morris has even admitted, in a letter to Lang, that her paintings were inspired by his work.

In their lawsuit, Lang and his colleagues claim that they are entitled to recover Morris' profits and damages, as well as attorney's fees. Painter and NEWSgrist blogger Joy Garnett, who first reported on the case, notes that Morris has a good argument that her use of the designs is "transformative," in that she makes a new and different artwork from copyrighted material. Morris appropriates the “functional diagrams” for 3D objects as compositional devices for her two-dimensional paintings, “the purpose of which is to comment ironically on the nature of flatness in painting,” according to Garnett. And Morris' paintings can hardly be said to harm the origami artists' market.

Furthermore, though Lang et al. have copyrighted their designs, it seems likely that they existed in the public domain; one of Lang's copyrighted books is titled, for instance, Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Secrets for an Ancient Art (2003). What's more, Garnett points out, it can be argued that origami designs are not copyrightable because they are "procedural diagrams." Their purpose is to instruct people how to make 3D objects, and so they are not yet expressions, but only the idea -- and ideas can't be copyrighted.

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