MIriam Elia, spread from 'We Go to the Gallery' (all images courtesy the artist)

MIriam Elia, spread from ‘We Go to the Gallery’ (all images courtesy the artist)

Last December, artist and comedian Miriam Elia raised funds on Kickstarter to publish the first edition of a satirical book she had written with her brother, Ezra. Called We Go to the Gallery, the book is a riff on what’s popularly known in the UK as the Peter and Jane series — early readers that have been published by the Penguin UK imprint Ladybird Books since the 1960s. The Peter and Jane books show the siblings of the same names, plus their Mummy, Daddy, and dog, living out perfectly average, harmless situations in order to teach kids key words and the process of reading. In Elia’s book, an “uncannily brilliant” re-creation of the originals, the family instead goes to an art gallery, where things go hilariously off the rails. In one scenario, Peter smiles awkwardly in front of a photograph of a man smoking a cigarette and wearing a dress. “The man is a woman. The woman is a man. Peter is excited. Peter is confused. Peter doesn’t know what he wants,” says the accompanying text. (New words to learn: man, woman, confused.)

Elia launched We Go to the Gallery at Cobb Gallery last month, and since then she’s sold most of her first edition of 1,000 copies. But shortly after the release, she received a cease-and-desist letter from Penguin UK (despite the fact that Penguin USA previously published another book by her). Penguin claims that Elia is infringing on their copyright, and they’ve also staked a moral claim against the “adult content” in the book. They’ve said that she may sell enough copies to cover any outstanding production costs, but after that they want her to destroy the rest of the books. They’ve even threatened/offered to do the destroying for her.

Artist Miriam Elia with a copy of 'We Go to the Gallery' (via miriamelia.co.uk)

Artist Miriam Elia with a copy of ‘We Go to the Gallery’ (via miriamelia.co.uk)

“At this moment, a shadow looms over this book, and my right to publish it. It is the shadow of a vast flightless seabird, fed fat on fish, krill, squid, and the creative integrity of struggling young artists such as myself. Penguin books are after my blood,” Elia wrote to Hyperallergic, in a joint statement with her brother, Ezra. She continues:

We Go to the Gallery is in danger. Penguin mean to pulp it, to sue me, and to prevent it from ever entering the public realm again. They do so on the pretext that it pollutes the idyllic brand of Ladybird books, and that I have infringed copyright on images they own. Yet they are still to prove that they own any such copyright, and the Ladybird brand is so remote from my audience that no child stands in any danger of an accidental corruption. Their argument is now fundamentally moral, not legal, and as such is an act of senseless and repressive censorship. Neither am I the first artist that they have persecuted, on similar grounds.

Part of the legal tangle that Elia faces is that British copyright law does not currently include a fair use exception that covers satire. As Elia pointed out in conversations with Hyperallergic, changes to the law allowing use of copyrighted material for parody purposes are in the works in the UK, possibly going into effect as soon as next month, but it’s not a done deal. In the meantime, she’s working to defend herself (and has received many letters of support, including one from the son of a former CEO of Penguin), and the joint statement explains:

This article is a message to let Penguin know that I will not bend to their depravity. If they succeed, then all the satirical tradition of modern art, which is rich with the joyful subversion of pop cultural icons and brands from Picasso to Lichtenstein, lurks in thrall to the whims of corporate enterprise, and its army of devoted lawyers. They will never find the books they seek to pulp, and if they take me to court, I will fight them, however long the battle takes. But I am in need of your help. If you like the work and wish to see it properly published, please follow my website, or email me at wegotothegallery@gmail.com. I may have to put a ‘fighting fund’ together, to make sure I can pay the legal costs required of me.

Elia still has a number of copies of We Go to the Gallery left, but they’re not for sale at the moment. So, courtesy of the artist, we’re publishing some of our favorite pages here. Prepare to grapple with the dark and soul-twisting depravity that is modern and contemporary art.


Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

31 replies on “Penguin Group Targets Artist Over Satirical Art Book”

  1. “she received a cease-and-desist letter from Penguin UK (despite the
    fact that Penguin USA previously published another book by her).”

    What on earth does one fact have to do with the other? I’m on her side, of course, but the fact that Penguin once published a book by her wouldn’t give her immunity from being sued over something else. That’s a bizarre non sequitur.

    1. I really don’t think it’s a non sequitur. Of course it doesn’t give her immunity, but the fact that the same company that once published a book by her is now threatening to sue her and destroy her work is, in my opinion, germane to the story.

    2. Probably the book published in the US is another work of satire and Penguin knows it can’t sue in the US because there the work is protected because it is satire.

  2. Did nobody suspect that this is a hoax set up by writer and publisher to raise sales.
    Well no, but the old saying by Rev Nashwinsky (1911) must be recalled, in which he indicated “Pinguins are not for reading but to be left in the Antartic to lay frozen eggs”. says Drager Meurtant

    1. sorry, drager, I think somebody already has a patent on frozen eggs. The penguins will just have to move to a warmer climate (or wait a decade or two for it to come to them).

  3. This is a way of showing up the dreary pompous nihilism of the art establishment but to a degree the author does still participate in the whole nastyness.

  4. Brilliant? Really? Shooting fish in barrels is not my kind of satire. Don’t think Penguin have a moral case though.

  5. Clearly not fair use. Maybe a parody, but maybe not. The words might be, but it looks like the drawings are not. And admittedly a violation of British law. Is there an author of the penguin books, or just contract writers?

    1. I don’t think this terrific book would breach Penguin’s copyright. Copyright protects the specific expression not the content. As the content is quite different … Another idea would be to try and get a boycott on Penguin going. That worked with ZElsevier over the Research Works Act a few years ago

    2. also if im correct she hand painted all the pages, could be wrong though, but if you go to her kickstarter i think it says so

  6. My understanding is that you can’t hold copyright in an idea. The words and images are clearly NOT taken from existing Ladybird books, so are original. I’m not sure how Penguin can claim any intellectual property in the format unless they are accusing her of ‘passing off’ which I think would require them to be competing for the same ‘market’ which seems unlikely. But I’m not a lawyer…

    1. Yes, I think you might be right. But “Peter and Jane” maybe? I seem to remember MacDonalds copyrights “lovin it”

  7. At a Pop Art exhibition I heard a small boy look at the first picture and say in a puzzled voice “That doesn’t catch my eye Dad, it is supposed to catch my eye, isn’t it?

  8. So how on earth did The Comic Strip Presents… get away with “Five Go Mad In Dorset”. Or is this just miserable sense of humour failure by Penguin?

  9. Penguin is not suing her. This is called PARODY. PARODY is NOT ILLEGAL. She is claiming she is being sued so sites like this will give her book more promotion. Simple minded fools fell for it hard!

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