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Origami v Morris: When Paper Folders Strike

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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