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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.
“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 email@example.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.