Nothing is Truly Original: When does a pop star’s use of artists’ work cross the line?

Written By: Brienne Johnson

In an age where social media is prevalent, artists’ works are more easily dispersed and accessible to the public. Pop stars’ album art and links to music videos are displayed on various platforms, such as Instagram, Snap Chat, and Twitter. Many artists use these same platforms to share their art and gain a following. Artists, due to the crucial role of social media in society, are faced with the problem of choosing between protecting their intellectual property and posting their work online to stay active and relevant within the art community. [1] While creative industries take inspiration from life, the line between inspiration is a fine one. At what point do the concepts and ideas of others taken from the internet and social media cross the line from inspiration to theft?

Recently, many pop stars have been called out for using concepts of other artists’ work in their videos and album art without permission or credit. [2]For example, Chris Brown imitated multiple artists’ works in his recent music video, Wobble Up; Ariana Grande imitated  another artist’s image for her God is Woman video; and Kendrick Lamar imitated another artist’s work in his All the Stars video. [3] Both Kendrick Lamar and Ariana Grande settled with the artists over their claims where their imagery was used without permission. [4]

Tim Maxwell, a recognized lawyer in the field of art law, cites ignorance as the main cause. Music video directors and the pop stars’ creative teams assume once art is placed in the public domain, everyone is able to use it without any objections from the original artist. [5] However, young artists who publish their art on Instagram do not have the resources to hire a lawyer and pay the legal costs associated with copyright protections. [6] For an artist to bring an infringement claim, there must be copying that satisfies the requirement of “substantial similarity.” [7] Unfortunately, as long as the artists remain silent, nothing will be done to further the protection of their intellectual property.

[1] Sydney Gore, Artists Speak Out Against Chris Brown Over Copyright Allegations in “Wobble Up”, HIGHSNOBIETY (May 22, 2019), https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/chris-brown-wobble-up-video-copyright-allegations/.

[2] Lanre Bakare, ‘Not Again’: the online artists accusing pop stars of stealing work, THE GUARDIAN (June 6, 2019, 07:43 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jun/06/not-again-the-online-artists-accusing-pop-stars-chris-brown-of-stealing-their-work.

[3] Id.

[4] Sarah Cascone, Kendrick Lamar Denies Ripping Off the Artist Who’s Suing Him Over His ‘Black Panther’ Music Video, ART WORLD (May 22, 2018), https://news.artnet.com/art-world/artists-accuse-chris-brown-of-copying-1554196.

[5] Bakare, supra note 2.

[6] Id.

[7] Ringgold v. Black Entertainment TV, Inc., 126 F.3d 70, 75 (2d Cir. 1997).


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