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Pt 1148

Lawsuit between origami enthusiasts unfolds – The Madeleine Brand Show:

Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper. You start with one square sheet. You crease it, fold it and pretty soon you’ve created a bird or maybe a frog.
Expert origami artists can take that same sheet and make elaborate flowers or lifelike insects.

There’s a lawsuit pending though, that could shake up the craft of origami, and the art world in general. Reporter Sanden Totten takes us inside a dispute between and origami maker and a painter.

Origami artist Robert Lang is suing abstract painter Sarah Morris, claiming that she used his designs in her paintings without asking permission.

We’ve featured Robert Lang’s origami here at MAKE (and CRAFT) so – please review the entire article (and listen the show, MP3) and post up what you think about this. Is it fair use for the artist, Sarah Morris, to make artwork from Robert’s computer generated folding-designs, or is it a copyright violation? Her paintings are the crease pattens, blown up, colored, and they’re paintings – not folded up. Robert does not appear to be credited in her works according to the article. Armchair lawyers, weigh in!

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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Comments

  1. Credit is a weird and complex thing. I once received a legal threat to _remove_ credit that I had given someone who inspired me. (No, I don’t understand either.) I’ve run across projects very obviously inspired by things that I’ve done and not been given credit. And that sucks, it’s like a punch in the gut. There’s this person out there whom I inspired to do something great (good!) who is claiming all the credit for themselves. (bad!) Every time I see it happen I get wound up, throw a tiny little angry party in my head. Could I sue? Sure! Would I win? Possibly, sometimes.

    But I don’t sue. I rarely even send a nasty (or passive agressive) letter. Because what do I really want? Do I want to get paid? Sure, who doesn’t, but any settlement is going to be small and I’ll have to deduct the legal fees. That’s if I win the suit. If I loose, it’s all out of pocket. There are better ways to get paid.

    Do I want to get recognition? Of course! But do I want to be recognized as someone who creates and encourages inspiration, or recognized as someone who sues those who are inspired by my work? I most definitely don’t want to be known as the latter. If the choice is between no recognition and being an inspirational wet blanket, I’ll take obscurity.

    So I don’t sue (or haven’t yet). It’s not the solution to my problem, ans sometimes there is no good, correct solution to a problem. I figure it all comes out in the karmic wash. A person simply can’t build a good reputation on ripping off the work of others.

  2. chuck says:

    The internet has made intellectual property as we know it an obsolete thing. I see too many novel things in a day to catalog what inspired what and why. As far as direct inspiration or the modification of someone else’s idea goes, credit is what matters and we should all give it where it is due. If your interest in your ideas is purely financial then don’t share them. Ideas are viral and you can’t claim ownership of a shared idea any more than you can sneeze in my face and demand I don’t catch your cold.

  3. Stryder says:

    It would be one thing is she was “inspired” by the stuff and rendered a painting from my mind’s eye. It might even be ok if she looked at the pic and free handed her own interpretation. But if she did multiple 99%-to-scale cut n pastes and presented it as abstract art, giving due credit would have been calling herself out for fraud.

    1. JohnZapps says:

      “But if she did multiple 99%-to-scale cut n pastes and presented it as abstract art, giving due credit would have been calling herself out for fraud.”

      …and what about Warhol then? I don’t think he credited the photographer that snapped the pic of Marylin Monroe. (I am often wrong though.)

  4. Janebot says:

    Robert Lang makes his living off those patterns. They are made with his own software, (he is an engineer) which he writes and designs, and he uses the software to create unique paper patterns. He sells books, teaches classes, displays his folds in museums, and sells special order (life size paper origami quartet for an orchestra performance)origami. Those are his livelihood, and when she takes them, laters them, makes money off them, and does not credit him, she is acting dishonorably at the least, illegally at the worst. Those patterns are the work of a master folder, with decades of experience and teaching, and most of his designs are only foldable by masters, since the computer allows him to design folds that stretch the limits of what the paper can do in terms of thickness and strength. I am a hobbyist and my mother is a master folder of 30 years experience, and his incredible designs are beyond our ability to replicate. I have met him and seen his folds on display at a museum in California, and they’re astonishing. His folding patterns are his property and the result of his hard work, and she should credit and purchase them accordingly.

    1. Legal technicalities aside (because copyright has been around long enough, and ben revised enough, that it cannot accurately represent the interests of the majority of people):

      “Robert Lang makes his living off those patterns. They are made with his own software, (he is an engineer) which he writes and designs, and he uses the software to create unique paper patterns. He sells books, teaches classes, displays his folds in museums, and sells special order (life size paper origami quartet for an orchestra performance)origami. Those are his livelihood, and when she takes them, laters them, makes money off them, and does not credit him, she is acting dishonorably at the least, illegally at the worst.”

      Robert Lang does not make print-based modern art. There is no reasonable way that this piece of artwork diverts revenue from him. In fact, if it gave credit (which would be polite, but is not required by copyright law) it might even expose more people to his work (since he can’t exhibit in all museums at once).

      Let me be clear: I’m not saying she’s not breaking copyright law. I’m just frustrated that copyright law, as it stands today, causes artists to get sued unnecessarily, and encourages Robert Lang, one of my favorite thinkers, to act like a troll.

  5. Janebot says:

    *alters derp!
    I appreciate that we all stand on the shoulders of giants- there is a great deal of origami that is hundreds of years old, unattributable, or public domain that she could have used, or she could have put on her artist hat- and made her own designs, like Robert Lang did to begin with.

  6. johngineer says:

    She probably looked at the original patterns and said to herself: “those are fascinating” and wanted to find a way to showcase what she found so interesting about them, so she made paintings of them. It’s really not uncommon to get hung-up on some small piece of a larger work, and want to celebrate it and create from that starting point. Mimicry is a valid (if presently overused) creative avenue.

    In another time, she might have called her work “Origami (after Robert Lang)”.

    But we live in the early 21st century, where inspiration without written permission (and royalties) is verboten. So rather than ask for permission, get the wrong answer, and end up on someone’s radar, she went ahead and did it on the QT and then got caught. The penalty for either is about the same.

  7. Wicker says:

    I think it’s a pretty far stretch to attempt to sue an artist in a different medium, using small sections of software generated patterns which she layered and otherwise altered to produce her finished product. A product which in no way appears to mimic the work of the person suing her. He works in paper to create a three-d object, hers is two-d. If no one had told me she was inspired by his work, I would have easily believed she simply drew the shapes herself. I think Lang should probably save himself some stress and let it go.

    Should she credit him, absolutely if he desires it. Why not? She said herself his work inspired her.

    In terms of a court case, he has as much chance to win as lose I would say. Depends on the judge more than anything else and whether he can produce hard evidence of “copying”. It would need to be virtually traced from the original to have a prayer. I hope they settle out of court and save the world one more rather silly litigation.

  8. A couple of years ago I had an extended conversation with CARFAC (http://www.carfac.ca/) regarding this exact topic. After getting several levels of people experienced in copyright law, the result was murky at best. As an Origami folder I use crease patterns (CPs) to learn from, and sometimes reproduce for a commissioned rate, but at all times you provide the original credit for the design.

    In a conversation a few years ago with the late Origami artist Eric Joisel (http://www.ericjoisel.com/) I was asked to change the credit from a photo of my fold / his design because it was not folded the way he folds. He also provided a photo of his finished product, which was simply astounding. It was a fascinating lesson in proper accreditation.

  9. Ed says:

    What does his software license say?

  10. there’s an old saying.

    “a good artist borrows a great artist steals”

    if you had to get or give credit for everything piece of art made there would be no art in the world. I understand this man makes a living off his art but this isn’t going to change that. this is about greed, feeding an outdated belief that we own ideas

  11. Sean Ragan says:

    Here’s a key bit of language from Blanch v. Koons, a recent (2005) and important US federal case about artistic “appropriation,” as it is known:

    “The painting’s use does not ‘supersede’ or duplicate the objective of the original, but uses it as raw material in a novel way to create new information, new aesthetics and new insights. Such use, whether successful or not artistically, is transformative.”

    If it is “transformative,” per earlier case law, then it is fair use. The qualifier that the artistic success of the use is irrelevant suggests that whether new information/aesthetics/insights are actually created, or not, is less important than the intention to create them, which Morris clearly has. The other part of Judge Stanton’s test–that the use not supersede or duplicate the objective of the original–also weighs strongly in Morris’ favor, because the objective of Lang’s originals is, clearly, to provide a pattern for producing folded paper works. Morris’s objectives–to provide patterns to be appreciated abstractly, as paintings, solely for their beauty as patterns–neither supersedes nor duplicates that objective.

  12. Karl Royle says:

    It may have been a nice idea to credit the original inspiration but it isn’t required legally not should it be. The paintings are not only a completely different medium but also not even a copy of his work. All she did (as far as I understand it) was to use small pieces of his work and create a new and original pattern then color it. The copyright only applies to the entire image not pieces of it and coloring it even if it was whole, changes the “use” of the original.
    One last thought; if I built a four foot high Cambell’s soup can would Andy Warhol or his estate deserve the royalties? Of course not.

  13. Don’t understand why this is going to court, really. Surely if both parties are reasonable they would agree an appropriate license fee and forget about it. I suspect the origami folder is being unreasonable and is angry about what he perceives to be plagiarism though I don’t accept that it is.

    Sarah Morris’s paintings do sell for a lot of money and no doubt this is also a factor in why he would be so annoyed. However I think that shows a complete failure to understand the art market and how it creates “value” as well as a failure to understand the tradition of abstract painting and conceptual art which Sarah Morris is involved with.

    1. Russ W says:

      They tried to contact her to discuss it. Several times over a two year period without success. There’s even an international organisation set up to protect origami copyright and they didn’t get a response either. You have to ask the question that if they feel there’s a question to be asked and the other person won’t even talk to them, what other recourse did they have?

      It’s worth pointing out that it’s not just Robert Lang. There are a whole group of them who’s crease patterns have been used.

      The crease patterns used by Morris have been recognised by people visiting exhibitions and then the origami artists contacted as a result saying ‘I saw your design at…’. Whether that is positive or negative is immaterial – it still means that their name and reputation is being used by implication without them having any control over how or when. An artist’s name is their livelihood and they should protect it. Example – say Morris decides to produce a series of pieces deliberately designed to shock and provoke outrage. If she was to use one of these crease patterns as a mosaic tile to depict a scene of a gang-rape, the origami artist who created the crease pattern might not want their name associated with it.

      The consequences for origami if Morris wins this will be severe. The leading origami artists will simply stop making crease patterns available for fear of how their name will be used. The many thousands of people across the world who use them and learn from them will be deprived of the opportunity to do so. Creativity will be stifled and the development of the next generation of origami artists will be set back severely.

      (*That doesn’t include me. I don’t fold from crease patterns – I’m not good enough)

  14. Robert should be flattered, art is highly derivative and can’t be patented or trademarked.

  15. Fine Art says:

    I think if she knew beforehand that it is his original art work, and that she means to derive something from it, she should have just contacted him to inform him or ask permission to use parts of his work. That is called respect, courtesy and the start of a win-win collaboration between two talented people. The negativity and conflict that arose between the two is dismaying for the art world in general…

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  17. Edmond Hui says:

    It’s not even permission that I think about. She knew where she got the designs from. She had a choice whether to credit or attribute and she chose not to mention Lang. It would be different if the designs shouted ‘Lang!’ in the way I can’t photograph Yosemite without Adams looking over my shoulder. To the layman, her designs would be assumed to be original. As a scientist I think it’s important always to separate what is prior and what is innovative when presenting work. So, to return to my point, she must have made a conscious decision not to even mention Lang. I cannot attribute any decent, kind, generous, or humane emotion to the decision that she made at that point. So I’m with Lang.

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