A Danish court has ruled an artist’s copyright in a painting, which he has sold, extends to pieces of the work that have been cut out for use in the manufacture of watches.
In a ruling, issued yesterday, December 2, the Maritime and Commercial Court prohibited a company, Letho, from manufacturing watches by cutting up parts of artist Tal R’s painting, Paris Chic, to use as a backdrop for the dials.
While Tal R is still the copyright owner of Paris Chic, it was purchased by the owners of Letho, Dann Thorleifsson and Arne Solmunde Leivsgarð, in August for £70,000 ($90,000).
After buying the painting, Thorleifsson and Leivsgarð launched an online auction where the winner of the auction could choose what piece of the painting would be the first to be cut out and incorporated in a new watch.
But, the artist said that the country's copyright law extends to changed customisations of the work as well as the original work.
A cut of the work into smaller parts, after which the individual parts are placed in watches and offered for sale as 'new works of art', constitutes an infringement of the law, Tal R said.
In its ruling, the court said that both parties had agreed that the painting is a copyright-protected work, but disagreed on whether the use of the painting on the watch dials was a change, or destruction.
Under Danish copyright law, a “destruction of a work cannot constitute infringement”. Letho argued that the cutting up of the painting and using it to produce a watch is a destruction of the painting.
On November 11, Tal R’s attorney sent Letho an email, claiming that Letho had violated the artist’s copyright and asked Letho to abandon the project.
Letho did not answer the email, but wrote on its website that it has the “utmost respect for Tal R and his work.
“It is, of course, in our good right to create new art based on existing art. After all, there are several examples in art history where works of art are being reshaped, and it is, after all, a premise for art that one can build on a narrative by altering the original form of a work of art,” Letho said.
In his arguments to the court, Tal R said that if he had been asked for permission for the project to transform one of his works for dials, he would have said "no thanks".
Art ‘taken hostage’
“For him, the project expresses a sad culture where the art is taken hostage. He has previously been presented with a project regarding a wristwatch. He said no, not thinking that he would be able to give the wrist watch anything special,” Tal R’s attorney said.
“He does not care what happens to his art when it leaves him. He can't worry about whether people place an ugly frame on the picture, put it in a basement or something like that. If he had to worry about it, he would be upset all the time.
“But, he didn't in his wildest fantasy imagine a situation where someone would cut up his painting. He thinks it is even sadder that someone will utilise it commercially,” he added.
In his reply, Thorleifsson said it would not be possible to identify which work had been used on the individual dials, or that they even originated from Paris Chic because the cut of the painting would be too small.
He added that Letho wants to ensure that Tal R gets a financial share from the sale of any of the watches.
But, the court ruled that the project makes the Paris Chic painting available to the public in a changed form. It said that this would infringe Tal R’s copyright and artistic reputation.
“‘We emphasise that the whole project is about changing Paris Chic, as Letho writes on its website: ‘What happens when you take an original artwork and converter to something else? There is both actual and purely legal change of the work’,” the court said.
Heidi Højmark Helveg, counsel for Letho, said the company had not decided whether to appeal the decision.
“It is my opinion that the ruling concerns freedom of artistic expression. How far you can go as an artist with another artist’s work? I have claimed that the case concerned a destruction of the work of Tal R, as only a very small piece of the work (0.04 % per watch) was planned to be used in each watch,” Helveg said.
“The question was what you can do with these small pieces following the destruction. It was my claim that the new pieces of work didn’t resemble in any way the old one,” she added.