Opinion

The $31M Lady Gaga Plagiarism Suit We’ve All Been Waiting For

Left: Orlan, "Bump Load" (2009), mixed media, 170 x 100 x 200 cm (via orlan.eu); right: cover image for Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"
Left: Orlan, “Bump Load” (2009), mixed media, 170 x 100 x 200 cm (via orlan.eu); right: cover image for Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”

Lady Gaga has been accused of plagiarizing from many artistic sources: Canadian-Ukranian artist Taras Polataiko, New York performance artist Colette, and Canadian artist Jana Sterbak, to name a few. But now someone’s finally going the extra step and suing her.

That someone is French artist Orlan, and she’s asking in French court for a whopping $31.7 million, or 7.5 percent of the profits from the Gaga album Born This Way and the video for the song of the same title. Orlan’s suit “accuses the singer of stealing from her to construct the visual universe” of the album, according Artinfo. What does that even mean? Artinfo asked Orlan’s lawyer, Philippe Dutilleul-Francoeur, that very question. He responded:

Not only did Lady Gaga reproduce works by the artist, but she also drew inspiration from her concepts. Orlan’s entire universe of hybridizations was copied in the “Born This Way” album, such as giving birth to oneself, which is seen in Orlan’s photography series “Orlan accouche d’elle-m’aime” (1964-66). The inspiration went too far.

Dutilleul-Francoeur’s first sentence refers to the other argument in the case, which is that Gaga “forged” two pieces by Orlan. He  explained that he’s operating under Article L 335 2: “any production without regard to the laws and regulations relating to authors’ property is a forgery and every forgery is an offense.”

The thread of contention running throughout the accusations, however, seems to be Gaga’s use of prosthetics and other things to give her glamorous lumpy monster look in photos and videos for the album. Orlan has actually had surgical implants in her face to make that look permanent, says the National Post, which means she wins at life — sorry, art. National Post adds that Orlan is suing the French subsidiary of Universal Music as well.

The line here is absurdly slippery — can you really sue someone for stealing a general aesthetic that you claim to have somehow originated or turned into art? Surely Orlan was not the first person to add bumps to her face. It seems a bit like Jeff Koons suing people left and right for using the image of the balloon dog. As for individual works, the onus to prove not only the theft but also the lack of transformation and interpretation seems quite a burden. In American court, that path didn’t work for Patrick Cariou, whose photographs Richard Prince reproduced pretty much identically in his own works. Orlan’s lawyer must know how tricky this is; in the aforementioned interview, he’s careful to note that “we’re not attacking Lady Gaga for having copied Orlan’s look, which is an ethical and not a legal issue. We’re accusing her of having forged her artworks, that is, of reproducing them illegally.”

We’ve arranged the two sets of artworks in question — original and “forged” — side by side, one at the top of this post and the other below. What do you think?

Left: Orlan, "Woman with Head" (1996), performance at ICA London (via orlan.eu); right: a screen shot from Lady Gaga's video for "Born This Way"
Left: Orlan, “Woman with Head” (1996), performance at ICA London (via orlan.eu); right: a screen shot from Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way” (click to enlarge)
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