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Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Brings Copyright Law Into 21st Century

Robert Rauschenberg's 'Patrician Barnacle' in the Portland Art Museum collection.

Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Patrician Barnacle’ in the Portland Art Museum collection.

Courtesy the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

The iconoclastic artist Robert Rauschenberg was well known for pushing art world boundaries. He said he wanted to work “in the gap between art and life,” and so his works combined painting with everyday objects like magazine clippings and Coke bottles. Now his foundation is pushing a new boundary: copyright law. It is making images of the artist’s work free for most noncommercial uses. No big deal to us here in Oregon? Not so.

A lot of people might be surprised to learn that when you take a photo of a work of art and post it to Facebook, you’re violating copyright law. That is, you could get sued. You probably won’t, but even if you buy the art, the artist still owns the rights to any images.

This has played out locally in a particularly Portlandia fashion, literally. The Portlandia statue has never become the city mascot that she could be, appearing on posters and microbrew bottles and greeting cards, because the artist who made the iconic statue has threatened to sue people who use the image. (The Rauschenberg Foundation will continue to charge for commercial uses such as these.)

Copyright law’s dampening effect is not just limited to commercial use: it touches everything in the art world, which depends on fair use.

“It affects departments across the museum because it’s a ton of work: copyright is always complicated,” says Maggie Hanson, the Portland Art Museum’s head of library and collections information. “This is a huge topic in museums. People are terrified.”

Hanson points to the example of a museum’s collection. Only two to five percent of most collections are on display at any time, so most museum’s want to put images of the rest of the collection online for academics and the public. But securing the proper permissions and making sure they’ve paid any relevant fees can dampen or even prevent museums from posting online (or posting anything but the smallest thumbnail). And that’s when it’s clear who owns the rights: some “orphan works” can be nearly impossible to clear. 

Museums have full-time employees who deal with rights issues. Not so for small arts organizations and individuals, like art historians and critics who want to write books and professors who want to use images in their lectures.

“Publishing arts textbooks can be incredibly difficult because frequently it’s so expensive to get the rights, you can’t even include the images you’ve done scholarship on,” says Hanson.  

Robert Rauschenberg at the Stedelijk Museum, 1968.

Robert Rauschenberg at the Stedelijk Museum, 1968.

Jac. de Nijs/Anefo /Nationaal Archief/Netherlands

That’s why a buzz erupted in the art world when the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation announced it would expand its fair use policy. According to its announcement, it is the first artist-endowed foundation to ditch the permission fees and hoops for museums, scholars, artists and the public.

Rauschenberg himself drew early fame for his “Combines,” which combined paintings and prints with found objects, including everything from magazine photos to taxidermy animals and Coca-Cola bottles.

“My father’s work involved using images from newspapers and magazine and neckties that people designed,” says Christopher Rauschenberg, the late artist’s son and president of his foundation. “And I think as a foundation, how hypocritical is it of us to say, ‘no, this is ours.’”

Christopher is an established local artist in his own right and a co-founder of Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, where he regularly deals with other artists’ copyright fees and strictures when putting together the annual Blue Sky Year Book.
The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation makes about $100,000 a year on licensing fees, and it projects opening up the rights will cut that in half, according to its announcement.

“If somebody gave us a grant asking us for $50,000 to have my father’s images be widely disbursed in catalogs and all over the museum world, we’d say, ‘that’s a great grant,’” says Christopher. “So basically we just made that grant to ourselves. We just give up that money. This is a no brainer.”

Rauschenberg says they were truly surprised by the outpouring of support they’ve gotten since, including numerous articles and blog posts.

“An announcement like the Rauschenberg Foundation’s is a really big step in the right direction,” says Hanson.

Now the question is, will other big-name artists and estates follow suit?

Robert Rauschenberg copyright Christopher Rauschenberg Blue Sky Gallery

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