Jeff Koons Back In Court: Plagiarism Or Image Sampling?

Jeff Koons

The American artist Jeff Koons is facing yet another lawsuit over plagiarism. Koons, who is one of the worlds most successful artists, with work selling for tens of millions, is no stranger to court battles. This time photographer, Mitchel Gray has stated in his complaint, filed in a Manhattan federal court, that Koons reproduced his photo, used in a Gordons Gin advert, which depicts a man sitting beside a woman painting on a beach. The work was a ‘commercial photo from the 1980s’ and according to the lawsuit filed on Monday was reproduced in its entirety. Appropriation is the new buzzword for this sort of artistic practice. If you compare it to sampling, a medium from the music industry, where musical sections are reproduced in a newer composition, the similarities are obvious. Numerous court cases have arisen from sampling and most have been won by the original creator. 

Gray has also brought charges against Phillips Auctioneers and an as-yet-unnamed former owner of the Koons print, which sold for $2.04 million in London in 2008.

Phillips Auctioneers’ spokesman Michael Sherman said in an email: “(W)e are confident that Phillips has no liability in this matter.”

Appropriation has been central to cases vs such notable artists as Richard Prince, Shepard Fairey  and Luc Tuymans.  Artlyst’s Paul Black says, “This particular practice of ‘image theft’ has been the mainstay of Prince’s practice for many decades. In fact, the artist invented his own conceptual process with the creation of ‘Re- photography’; where Prince would appropriate existing images – often sourced from advertising – and would re-contextualise them by Re-photographing the initial image – a photo of a photo – then subtly re-cropping the work: a practice that would shift the perspective of not only the viewer. It would seem that this particular act has also shifted the perspective of the courts; in fact there is no way of knowing whether or not the artist is guilty of copyright infringement, despite the fact that the artist has not received permission to use most of the photographs. But the simple fact that Prince has altered the images might help the work meet the requirements of fair use, which – according to the courts – is a suitable defence against the charge of copyright infringement”.

Koons was recently sued by French photographer Jean-François Bauret  for copying one of his best known images, for the 1988 sculpture titled Naked. There appears to be a disturbing change in attitudes regarding the use of found and appropriated images, it appears that the knives are out for this particular artistic tradition. The sculpture created in porcelain, was part of Koons’ “Banality” series and would have been on display in retrospective, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris had it not been damaged, but the work was illustrated in the current catalogue which is where it was noticed by Bauret’s wife.


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