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A comparison of Robert J. Lang’s ‘Cooper’s Hawk’ to Sarah Morris’s ‘Falcon’ (image via langorigami.com)

In the latest who’s-suing-whom story, six origami artists have filed suit for copyright infringement against artist Sarah Morris for jacking their crease maps to use as a basis for her colorful Origami series, which consists of thirty seven paintings.

My first thoughts: Morris cannot lose this one. We have mass-marketed two-dimensional recipes for creating three-dimensional folded paper items, and these recipes have been used as the formal basis for multi-colored two-dimensional paintings. What of it?

Who knew origami was about the Benjamins? (via orudorumagi11.deviantart.com)

After all, the markets are separate and not competitive. And the resulting artworks belong to two different worlds and you cannot confuse one for the other. What’s more, though Morris lifted the format straight off the crease maps, her final paintings took nothing like the finished form of any origami object: so, in an admittedly ironic way, they were even, arguably, transformative.

The origami artists listed in the suit, Robert J. Lang, Noboru Miyajima, Manuel Sirgo, Nicola Bandoni, Toshikazu Kawasaki and Jason Ku, seek compensation for each of twenty four separate infringing works, that are “strikingly similar to copyrighted artworks belonging to Plaintiffs because Morris has unlawfully copied Plaintiffs’ Works for commercial use.”

Heavily documented, the complaint weighs in against a possible fair use defense by stating that Morris acted in bad faith, knowingly using Lang’s and the others’ crease patterns and deliberately producing “confusion as to the authorship of the origami artist’s works by stating that she’d used by referring to them as “ ‘found diagrams,’ ‘found designs,’ and ‘traditional origami diagrams.’” — despite the fact that the “plaintiffs have continuously held themselves out as the authors of the crease patterns Morris copied.” The complaint also provides arguable proof that Morris was well aware of Lang and his work through a New Yorker article that she herself cited in interviews.

The Origami team also points out that Lang was contacted by another origami artist who’d spotted the infringements on April 2 of 2009 and he immediately sent a letter to one of Morris’s galleries. Repeated attempts to contact Morris with letters that contained Lang’s maling address followed with no response.

A comparison of the Lang’s “Cooper Hawk” and Morris’s “Falcon” (via langorigami.com)

Lawyers Caroline Valentino of Haims Valentino, LLP and Andrew Jacobson of Bay Oak Law also make clear that the commercial aspects of Sarah Morris’ Origami series are not at all in question, citing how and when and for how much these paintings were marketed. Harder to prove will be the claim that Morris “created competition for Plaintiffs by occupying the market for painted versions of their copyrighted artworks.” What market is that, exactly? I await to hear.

Of course there will be the usual speculation up front about the “transformative” nature of Sarah Morris’s paintings which, examined side by side with the crease patterns, show little or no variation at all save for solid lines replacing dotted ones, and the addition of vivid color.

Despite this, art snobs will definitely snort when it is suggested that Morris did little but color in the outlines, although it will take a carefully crafted deposition statement to coax the courts to accept that Morris’ implied commentary on dimensionality is transformative in a legal sense. Do the flatlanders of the legal world know a “Coopers Hawk” from a “Falcon” when the wind is northerly? We’ll see.

If the Northern California District Court pulls a Cariou on poor Ms. Morris, she stands to lose a huge body of work, and “additional works that are derivative of the Infringing Works, including, but not limited to, a magazine cover and handmade rug derived from “Angel,” and signed original prints of “Rockhopper.”

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Cat Weaver

Independent curator, Cat Weaver is the Brooklyn-based writer and editor of The Art Machine, a blog that covers the art market in all of its gossipy glory....

26 replies on “Origami v Morris: When Paper Folders Strike”

  1. Since the originals are functional and their form is determined by the purpose they are intended for, it’s not clear they can be copyrighted.

    And I hesitate to bring the Vanilla-Ice-invoking hordes out of the woodwork, but Morris has changed the compositions. Which people can easily see if they look at them. Crazy suggestion, I know…

  2. This seems like such a dumber case than Cariou and Prince. The choice of colors alone is transformative use. While the geometric compositions are nice, it’s the color that makes Morris’s paintings so powerful. 

    1. Woulda been nice… and respectful and polite… to change the designs a tiny bit more, but yeah… unlike Prince this isn’t just taking the EXACT thing that is meant to be the same type of object/image.. ie: photographic art… its taking a design for something physical and 3d and turning the pattern into something completely unrelated other than basic pattern.

    2.  Such were my initial thoughts, Kyle; but I’m not so sure now how the courts will see this. They may be colorblind. They were when it came to Koons’ String of Puppies!

      1. I read joy garnett’s piece and found that she was mistaken in her understanding that Lang had confused “derivative” and “transformative”: Lang was using the legal sense: a derivative work is a work made by using another “original” work. A derivative work is “transformative” if it does not merely superscede or replace the original, but adds to, comments upon it, or expands upon it’s meaning.

        If Morris does not settle, the courts will decide if her derivative paintings were transformative in that legal sense. It will depend a LOT upon Morris and her legal team, her deposition, and also the oragami artists and their teams and their depositions. It’s not an easy call.

        That said, there’s a lot more involved: the maketing of the pieces, and the effect (if any) that Morris’ works had or did not have on that market, will also matter.

        And Morris’ clear bad faith will weigh against her as well: the courts take that into account as well.

        People come to these stories with very strong opinions that often don’t matter in court.

      1. no time; if ppl are interested in how the story broke then maybe they’ll click thru.

          1. We do our research and then we write: HERE, on this site. ANd we LOVE commentary HERE, on this site.

            Posting links to your own work as a response to a story is simply rude. It’s rude to readers who are looking at comments HERE, and its rude to your fellow journalists who’ve put together a story, HERE.

      2. Sad that you’re being textbook passive aggressive rather than making whatever your point is.

    1. Seeeer-ee-us-LEE?

      Honestly, Joy, we are ALL short of time. I happen to like your newsgrist, and have seen your take, but, really? Isn’t it a tad pompous to post your links here with NO COMMENTARY?

      Skip the hubris and pump us a few, huh? A leedle bit of your respected insight, right here on our humble pages!

      BTW: Rob Myers: THAT, above, is sort of what passive aggression would look like if it weren’t sarcasm.

  3. Lang and others have often exhibited large 2-DIMENSIONAL crease patterns along with and independent of their 3-dimensional origami. Interesting how ignorant parties jump the gun in assuming that origami artists can’t recognize the beauty of these geometric patterns, and only a high-profile “artist” like Sarah Morris could make that leap…

    1.  Thank you, Allison. I find this is a pattern with these stories. There seems to be an unspoken pecking order for who may blatently lift from whom.

    1.  MABONA ORIGAMI! Nice work. Can you explain what you mean by “the wallpaper cover?”

      Also, I’ve a question for you: Did you sell the crease patterns independently of the 3-D product?

      Can you tell us what you think about Morris adding color to them?

  4. one of her paintings was used as the cover of wallpaper. i came across it while i was having a show (pictures above) in my home town. i was upset that she was doing the same thing i was… except that she is way more accomplished.

    yes i sold the lambda prints independently… but a little cheaper than mrs. morris did. and coming up with the patterns took me way longer than coloring them… i also started a series coloring them because i was upset about mrs. morris (in a more conceptual way though… because i know what the patterns mean) but i’ve switched to actually folding and unfolding them. i think it’s the most interesting way of displaying them. and it clearly separates my work from that of a non folder. 

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sipmab/4028787427/in/set-72157600600415783/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sipmab/5408885494/in/photostream

    1. Wow: interesting stuff! Thank you so much, sipmab!  This sort of information about the marketing of, and the way oragami artists view, their 2-D crease patterns could have some heft in court depending on how many in the suit were attempting to sell the way you were (with the crease patterns by themselves, w/out the folded objects).

  5.  Hi,

    I haven’t gotten into the various blogosphere discussions about this, but I do want to clear up a misconception that seems to be out there. Many artists have designed their own origami crease patterns and exhibited and sold them as 2-D artworks — artworks that stand independently of what, if anything, they fold into. We create our own designs, choose our colors, and sell and/or show them as artworks that hang on the wall (I’ve done this with my own work since 2003). Thus, we don’t find Ms. Morris changing the color scheme but otherwise doing pretty much the same thing(*) to be all that transformative. You can see some of my crease patterns in their exhibition at MOMA here:

    http://www.langorigami.com/info/sarah_morris_copyright_infringement.php4

    (*) except for the “create your own designs” part

  6. I am very disappointed with Ms. Morris.  As a creative and visual person who has a great fascination with origami in the unfolded form, I can stand by Ms. Morris, but I think she tried to pull a fast one here.  Sorry but the structure is far too exact.  These are blue prints.   The exact blue prints.  In another world (of espionage), if SHE took  blue prints (obviously confidential) and sold them to the Russians during the cold war you SHE WOULD be tried for treason…..Forget about the colour…She stole the blue prints……………!!  Ok these are origami prints, not top secret military designs, but I think you get my principle.

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