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Luc Tuymans in Brussels in 2009 (photo by Marc Wathieu/Flickr)

The painter Luc Tuymans has been found guilty of plagiarism over a portrait of the Belgian politician Jean-Marie Dedecker. A civil court in the artist’s hometown of Antwerp deemed the piece, “A Belgian Politician” (2011), to be a reproduction of a photo taken by photojournalist Katrijn Van Giel in 2010 and therefore in violation of her copyright, De Morgen reported. Tuymans will be fined €500,000 (~$577,000) if he creates any more “reproductions” of Van Giel’s work or shows the original painting, which now belongs to collector Eric Lefkofsky. The photographer, who works for the Flemish newspaper De Standaard, had been seeking €50,000 (~$57,700) in damages.

Tuymans admitted that he had used Van Giel’s image as inspiration — his painting reproduces the photo’s high angle, the tight cropping that omits the lower half of the politician’s face, and the light reflected off his sweaty forehead — but that he considered his work to be a parody, and thus not subject to copyright law. He is best know for paintings that, though based on existing images of political figures, historical events, and current affairs, have a disquieting and ominous washed-out look and monochromatic palette.

Comparison of Katrijn Van Giel’s photo (top) and Luc Tuymans’s painting (bottom) (by EvaWittocx/Twitter)

“Luc Tuymans wanted to create a strong image to deliver a critique of the move to the right wing in Belgian society,” said the artist’s attorney, Michaël De Vroey of Baker & McKenzie, according to Flanders Today. “His work is therefore more than just a painted version of a photo. The format and color contrasts are different, so that no confusion could be possible.” In order for the work to qualify as parody, the court needed to find it both humorous and significantly different from the original image.

“Of course they will now say it’s a parody, since that is the only way to escape judgement,” said Van Giel’s lawyer, Dieter Delarue. “To my knowledge, Luc Tuymans is not really best known for his humorous works. This defense is more of a parody than the work itself.” The court quickly sided with Delarue and his client, delivering its verdict a full week ahead of schedule, on January 15. Tuymans plans to appeal the decision.

“Like many contemporary artists, the work of Luc Tuymans is based on existing images,” De Vroey said after the decision, according to Le Soir. “How can an artist call the world into question with his works if he isn’t allowed to use that world’s images?”

Ironically Baker & McKenzie, the law firm representing Tuymans, launched an interactive guide to fair use laws for artists and other creators last month.

Correction: This article originally used the wrong terminology to describe the court’s ruling. Tuymans was not “convicted” of copyright infringement, but rather found guilty of it.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

60 replies on “Luc Tuymans Found Guilty of Plagiarism for Painting Photo of Politician”

    1. That’s not how copyright law works, and you should be thankful for the way it does work, if your an artists. Because if it’s only about exact replica’s then all anyone would have to do is introduce minor, un-noticeable changes, and rip off someone’s original work.

      Belgium is part of the International Copyright laws, so their laws aren’t so different than ours.

      Infringement is up to the courts to decide, and it’s not just on the artwork in question, it examines the intent behind it. Also he admitted he used someone’s photo for his work, and based his work significantly on the photo. Which copyright law clearly says NO.

        1. Yes, thank you for restating what I and many others already know.

          Are you an artists? Do you deal with copyright and infringement issues on a daily basis? Do you have a copyright lawyer help you navigate the legal issues of copyright? Have you ever taken a class or seminar on copyright?

          I can say yes to all those questions. Simply, when you make something you own the copyright on it. The copyright is automatically yours, but you should still register it, so if you get infringed, you can get back the legal costs of protecting your work.

          Part of owning a copyright is controlling the ability to license out the work, or to make derivative work of your property. Derivative work is anything that is BASED on your copyrighted material.

          In the artists own words: Tuymans admitted that he had used Van Giel’s image as inspiration — his painting reproduces the photo’s high angle, the tight cropping that omits the lower half of the politician’s face, and the light reflected off his sweaty forehead

          His defense is that it’s parody. When you get sued like this, the courts decide if it’s parody or not. There’s a very definitive definition of what parody is. It’s not a vague concept.

          parody must make comment on the nature of the original work being parodied, or the genre or the author of the piece.

          Being inspired, as the artist claims, doesn’t fall under what parody is. He is not adding any commentary to his work. Simply using the copyrighted photograph as the basis for his work.

          There for, under the law, it is infringement.

          Before you respond, please go and learn about how copyright works, what it protects and why.

          Otherwise, you just look stupid typing IN ALL CAPS the obvious.

          1. You’re completely missing the point — it’s that copyright law IS COMPLETE BULLSHIT and needs to be changed. Half a glance at those two works is sufficient to confirm that the painting is unique with regard to the photo it’s based on, if one has two brain cells to rub together, which you apparently don’t. How about you use some common sense and your eyeballs before inundating us with your stupid legal blather

          2. What’s bullshit is when an ‘artist’ can claim parody when they have nothing original to contribute. He’s not even a skilled painter.

          3. Something doesn’t need to be a parody to be original. And originality has nothing to do with quality or worthiness. All the work has to be is substantially different than what it is based on, which in the case of the painting, IS LITERALLY TRUE – it’s executed in a different medium, with different materials and means, and utilizing a completely different skillset. Even if the painting was an exact photorealistic copy it would still be original.

          4. No, parody has to make commentary on the piece they are using. This doesn’t make any commentary.

            Man, you are stupid. Like awe inspiring stupid.

          5. Disagree. He’s being judged on content. His content is a copy. Just because it’s executed in paint does not make his authorship original. If a songwriter copied word for word from a novelist but claims it’s original because it’s lyrics in a song, he/she didn’t author it, he/she can claim they were inspired by the novelist but it’s still plagiarism.

          6. Copyright law isn’t bullshit, it’s doing exactly what it’s meant to. protect people from having their original work copied, in full or partially, and from being ripped off.

            Half a glance is all that is needed to see he heavily copied the guys photo.

            As for brain cells, good luck with the two you have. You are going to need them. Just to keep breathing it seems.

          7. Court verdict yes. And is needless to say more!
            But you might want to consider that in the past an artist using a piece of an other fellow artist work (credited or not) used to be an act of honour to the latter. This was back in Shakespeare time.
            Now its all about making money…
            And yes I speak as a victim of stollen work.

          8. Doesn’t the changed context add “commentary”? The original photograph appeared in a newspaper or magazine, and was almost certainly not taken with the intention of being presented on the wall of a gallery or a museum. The meaning of the image completely changes depending on the context. I wouldn’t call this “parody,” either, but in the US I believe one of the conditions for “fair use” is that the work is “transformative” in some way … wouldn’t the changed context “transform” the image (or how we view the image)?

          9. You obviously don’t understand how copyright and infringement work. But you are spot on for making comments that highlight your stupidity. I’m in awe of your mastery of that.

      1. Yep, Plagirarism, need to ask /pay the photographer first. Oh, in
        belgian law, if you introduce minor changes to the new piece, it stays
        plagiarism.

    1. Why? you just need to be sure you don’t use others intellectual property. You can’t expect your own work to have protection and feel free to use someone elses work.

    2. Over react much ? What would boycotting Belgian art fairs achieve ? except hurting artists. Belgian copyright laws are not unusual at all – the court applied the law which has been in place for many many years (see the Berne Convention 1886!).

      If in doubt – ask permission.

  1. I don’t like the idea of the courts entering art, but in this case I have to agree. It’s blatant plagiarism and the parody defence does not stand up. He stole another artist’s work.

  2. Not cool at all, the painter did not do anything wrong, and I don’t see it as an ‘exact’ reproduction, its colour is different and there are certain parts that are not exact! The only thing I would have done is ask the photographer for permission.

    1. Infringement isn’t about exact reproduction. Copying any portion is infringement. They are saying plagiarism, but the correct word should be infringement.

      Please go read about copyright.

      1. not true.

        this is US law in regards to copyright:

        Factors in determining fair use. Generally, when reviewing fair use questions, courts look for three things:
        – You did not take a substantial amount of the original work.
        – You transformed the material in some way.
        – You did not cause significant financial harm to the copyright owner.

        how can the press photographer be claiming any “damages”? Tuymans is practically a historic artist at this point. The photographer just wants his money.

        I think the defense chose the parody route as the only hope to defend against an outdated and ludicrous law. See Richard Prince’s battles with artistic copyright in the regards to direct appropriation and the results.

        and what about the photographer who photographed the painting? ha.

        1. As usual, someone quotes Fair Use, and gets it wrong.

          http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html

          There is the link to the ACTUAL copyright of the USA on Fair Use.

          Here is what fair use covers from that link:

          “Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.”

          Note the word, reproduction. REPRODUCTION.

          Transformative art must bring new context and meaning into the work, and be able to stand alone. It has long been ruled by the courts that simply taking someone’s work, and redoing it in another medium is not transformative, as it adds no new context.

          I know that you are going to argue it does. But under what that means, it does not. Simply saying it’s transformative doesn’t cut it. Just like saying something is parody or satire doesn’t cut you. More than likely, you just don’t know what those things really are.

          There are many cases where an artist lost, making those very claims, because they simply didn’t understand.

          This painter didn’t transform the photo, he just reproduced it in another medium. Under all laws and precedent, this is squarely infringement.

          You’re Welcome.

  3. If there is work that inspired and guided you, you should make proper reference. That being said, regarding cultural policy there are far more important problems to worry about than this. Throwing one of those balls in the air: Why not make everything that was created on public funding fall under cc licence.

  4. Interesting. As most people don’t get close enough to a politician to be able to take a photograph, let alone to paint them, in order to paint them most of us painters must rely on others photos in order to get a likeness. We are bombarded with images of politicians and celebrities all the time so that it is appropriate that some of these images get processed by painters as we make sense of the world in which we live. I am for protecting artists ownership of their work, but in the case of public figures that are in the news all the time and who most people don’t have access to, it seems the law should be more lenient if artists rely on photos that are readily available in the new etc.

  5. Scary, really scary. Paint isn’t a photo medium so what’s really the intent here is suppression of thought & action. Put down those damn art tools and get a real job like at some commercial outlet. Obvious these people are ignorant of Dove, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Metro Pictures, etc. use of ACTUAL images from newspapers. Didn’t even bother to alter them.
    Rosenquist, Warhol been down that road. Heck, I did some paintings of advertisements on building walls, and the commercial painters thought they were great. It is to laugh.

    1. All of these clever pieces qualify in my mind as parodies; they have altered the meaning of the image, and they comment on both the content and in the image and the “fate” of the image itself….also some are really funny…parodies usually at least try to be amusing.

  6. Copyright law defends the rights of the plaintiff, not the rights of defendants. Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn would have been considered a derivative, as it’s based on a 1953 publicity still for the movie Niagara. Not to mention his Campbell soup cans. Had the rights owners also sued in these cases, Warhol would (quite likely) have had to fold his silk screen away. But they didn’t.

    1. Dunno. But IM Pei reportedly retains a “moral right” on any (commercial, not private) images of the Louvre that include the Pyramid. The Louvre cannot charge rights in its own name. So it negotiates them on his behalf by invoking this moral right (a French concept that involves a right of refusal by a creator/author in the event of perceived misappropriation of his/her work, even after its sale, a right that cannot be transferred or bought out).

  7. Second hand lawyers: painting is a different thing than photography, even photorealistic painting. Even if it were an „absolute” copy, the painting is the intermediate result of a mind and a hand, it has no direct connection to the original object(the photography in this case).

    1. Not sure this would work where rights to the prototype would apply, unfortunately. Try it, if you’re ever sued, and tell us.

  8. it’s totally ridiculous. I am a photographer and publisher. I understood since a long time that a painting from a photo is always an interpretation. A newspaper pic is an information. A painting from a pic is art, good or bad, but this is another question.

    1. Then by similar standards, if anyone takes a picture of a piece of art, they should be allowed to appropriate this image as long as their story justifies the artistic pursuit of the act and the photograph isn’t an exact copy? It would take all but 2 seconds for someone to threaten with litigation if they hadn’t been asked first. The only thing I see here are double standards because of the fame of the painter and a lack of respect for artistic works used for non-artistic purposes. Or can anyone with opposable thumbs become a photographer for a national newspaper?

      1. Photography, unlike painting, is not an interpretation but a copy, it has an index link to the original object.

  9. I am an artist. His painting is NOT a parody. It is just a painted version of the photograph. He should have changed it more, used a different color palette, put mickey mouse ears on the politician, did something “humorous”, something different. smh.

  10. well on the other hand it is a perfect opportunity for the art world to get confronted outside the galleries and closed circles of art people, however ridiculous the verdict is :) I see some positive outcomes down the road

  11. It seems to me that the lighting, cropping and composition of the photograph are–whether it appeared in a journalistic context or not–deliberately “ominous”. In fact,it is more of a “commentary” on “Belgium’s shift to the right” than the painting, which is “washed out”and softened. So not only did he appropriate the image: If he’s telling the truth, he appropriated the intention. It doesn’t fit the concept of parody in my opinion, and apparently not in the court’s opinion either.
    On a purely material note; if you sell a work for a good deal of money and don’t compensate the inspiration of that work, you are legally within your rights, but morally F)*cked. I know it’s naive of me, but I still think if you take a picture of a starving kid, or a girl with green eyes, and make a bundle on it, you find that kid, it it hasn’t died, or that girl whose face is on thousands of coffee mugs, and you give them oh…say…20 percent of the money you made. I know it’s impractical and sticky in other ways…but…yeah.

  12. In belgian newspapers her laywer clearly states that it’s just about the money. They only had to prove that tuymans was wrong now they can do the money talk. He does have the money to hire someone to get things lealy done and thats what he should do. Being rich and famous sucks.

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