Stealing beauty

America's harsh copyright laws are ridiculed by an exhibition of illegal art

The next time you sing "Happy Birthday to You" in public, be careful - you could end up paying royalties. The world's most popular party song is owned by Time Warner Inc, netting the media giant a cool $2m a year, and each time someone sings it without permission, it's a breach of copyright. That is just one of the lessons of "Illegal Art: freedom of expression in the corporate age", which has been touring the United States to raise awareness of increasingly strict copyright laws.

The exhibition celebrates what has been called "degenerate art of the corporate era": art on the fringes of intellectual property law. Each piece flirts outrageously with copyright or trademark infringement. Some, such as Bill Barminski's Mickey Mouse gas mask and Packard Jennings's Pez sweet dispenser in the shape of the dead rapper Tupac Shakur, have eluded lawyers. Many others haven't. Offended by Consumer Whore, a droll parody of the Starbucks logo, the world's most famous coffee company harried the artist Kieron Dwyer for a year, until his legal funds dried up and he was forced to settle out of court.

The curator of "Illegal Art", Carrie McLaren, who also edits Stay Free! magazine, says the show is "a good way to make discussions of copyright and intellectual property - some very heady matters - accessible to a larger audience". Indeed, it poses tough questions. Should artists be allowed to use copyrighted materials? Does copyright law discourage the creation of works of art? And to what extent is our culture owned by big corporations?

These issues have recently been brought into sharp focus by an unlikely character: Mickey Mouse. In 1928, Walt Disney created Steamboat Willie, an animated version of a character in the Buster Keaton movie Steamboat Bill, Jr. Willie soon morphed into Mickey Mouse, the world's best-known cartoon character, and the Disney empire was born.

The Founding Fathers believed that copyright law should facilitate the exchange of ideas and fuel creativity, rather than line people's pockets, and so, in 1790, artists were given the sole right to profit from their creations for 14 years. After that, their work entered the public domain, allowing other artists to borrow freely from it. Desperate to protect its lucrative ownership of Mickey, Disney has obtained 11 extensions to its copyright in the past 40 years. Together with other companies, it has lobbied Congress to ensure that copyright now lasts a staggering 95 years if it is owned by a corporation, and 70 years after the artist's death, if it is owned by an individual. According to Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School, Disney has succeeded by framing the debate as a battle to stop theft and to protect its property.

Paradoxically, Disney borrowed Snow White, Cinderella and many other fairy-tale characters from the Brothers Grimm precisely because they were in the public domain - yet today, nobody can borrow from Disney in the same way. Lessig believes America's creative health depends on stopping that kind of control. "For our culture to be a space for free expression and for creativity to flourish, artists must be able to build on pre-existing art," he says.

The US courts frequently take a different view. In 1991 Gilbert O'Sullivan successfully sued the rapper Biz Markie for sampling his song "Alone Again (Naturally)". "Thou shalt not steal," the judge thundered as he passed judgment, in effect banning sampling for ever. Today, anyone who wants to make a sample-heavy record must pay exorbitant rates to obtain the rights and release it on an underground label, or distribute it online. Had today's laws existed earlier in the 20th century, hip-hop might have been stillborn.

Predictably enough, the most notorious exhibits in "Illegal Art" have flourished on the internet despite attempts to ban them. They include The Grey Album - DJ Danger Mouse's unauthorised remix of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album - and the Todd Haynes film Superstar, which uses Barbie dolls to depict the singer Karen Carpenter's unsuccessful battle with anorexia. Before Barbie's owner, Mattel, could sue for copyright infringement, Richard Carpenter stopped the film by suing Haynes for unauthorised use of Carpenters music.

The audiobook Wizard People, Dear Reader is the brainchild of Brad Neely, a comic-book artist from Arkansas. An alternative soundtrack to the first Harry Potter film, to be played while watching it on mute, Neely's twisted spoof of Harry's first year at Hogwarts is a beguiling brew of obscure Americana, dark comedy and surreal satire. "I am a beautiful animal," Harry bellows when he catches the Golden Snitch. "I am a destroyer of worlds. I am Harry Fucking Potter." Not everyone finds it funny - Harry Potter's distributor, Warner Brothers, refuses to rent prints of the film whenever it suspects that Wizard People will be played over the top.

Cocking a snook at the corporate bullies and defying efforts to extinguish its existence, "Illegal Art" is a celebration of provocative work, a bulwark against America's copyright regime, and a warning about that country's shrinking public domain. "Creativity and innovation always build on the past in free societies," Lessig says. "Ours is less and less a free society."

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This article first appeared in the 06 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Planet saved?: Why the green movement is taking to the streets