Sunday, March 17, 2013

What is Intellectual Property?

First things first.  I am happy to report after almost three months on the road, I have made it from L/A to LA.   I've been excited, terrified, exhausted and most importantly inspired.   Inspired by the landscape of this beautiful and diverse country, inspired by the thousands of students I have talked to, inspired by the conversations I've had with old friends, new friends and everyone / everything in between.  (I would much rather be exploring Los Angeles on this perfectly beautiful day than writing this blog post.)

About two weeks ago, I was drinking morning coffee in Las Vegas, about to leave for Salt Lake City and reading conflicting reviews on my twitter feed of Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In.  I got a google alert that I was mentioned in post a on Flickr about Ty Morin, who was doing a kickstarter campaign to  photograph all of his Facebook friends.   I clicked on the link and saw that a stranger had pointed him to my project.  I scanned it, was curious and headed on the road.  By the time I got to SLC, I got another google alert.  This time, I read that Mashable had covered his project.   I clicked on the link.  Writer Sam Laird promoted Ty's kickstarter + project and said:

"Morin's not the first to take on such a journey — artist Tanja Hollander is working through her friend list as well in something called The Facebook Portrait Project — but it's still a pretty cool idea."

What is "cool" about doing the same exact project as someone else?  What is "cool," Mr. Laird, about not giving credit to your colleague Zoe Fox who covered this on Mashable last year?   What is "cool" about intentionally (or not) stealing another person's IP?  If gender roles were reversed would it be "cool" for a 20-something woman to copy a 40-year-old male artist?  I have been contacted by only one reporter who sees this as "not cool."  Why is that?   Why is Ty Morin continuing to ignore my project?  Does he have no artistic integrity?  Is that "cool"?

A rush of unexpected feelings happened.  I was angry.  I was frustrated.  I was hurt.  I was appalled. I didn't care.  But actually I do care.   I care a lot.   I have devoted the last two years of my life to this work.  I have a 20-year career.  I have done a TEDx talk about this work, lectured all over the country about this work, and had two museum shows about this work.

I am often been asked by students if I am concerned about Facebook / Instagram terms of service as they relate to having my work on the internet.  It could be stolen.   I know, I have always said, but I think sharing work is more important than suing people.  In all of the discussions I've had, it has never occurred to me that someone would steal—knowingly or not—my idea.  In fact, I encourage students to go on similar journeys—I have learned so much (which I have extensively written about).

Intellectually, I know imitation is the highest form of flattery.  Intellectually,  I know there is no such thing as an original idea.  That is why I spent two months researching artists/photographers who travel, who photograph in homes, who use the internet, who use FACEBOOK.  I spent a week on the Library of Congress' website looking at the FSA photographers.  I talk about Robert Frank's book The Americans in every lecture I give.  I read Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together. I follow the Pew studies.  I contacted Arlyn Presser, who set off to visit all of her Facebook friends to cure her social anxiety.  I learned about photo 2.0 and museum 2.0, and contacted both Andy Adams and Nina Simon.   I learned about Nate Larson + Marni Shindelman's twitter project, and contacted them. I consulted with fellow artists, curators, historians and writers before I began.

All Mr. Morin had to do, was a simple google search of "facebook portrait project."  My website comes up first.  It may not be against the law to copy someone's exact concept and body of work, but it's wrong.  The art world is small, the photo world even smaller. My guess is, this is something Mr. Morin has not thought about.

What do I want to happen? This is the question I keep asking myself.  I want to know why the media and kickstarter continue to encourage this kind of behavior. I want Ty Morin to acknowledge that he is doing the exact same project as a colleague.  I want all of us to think about what IP means.   I want all of us to think about gender equality—specifically in the arts and tech world.   The Twee Q  gender study in particular is enlightening.  

I want everyone who reads this to re-post it.   Especially on every media site that covers his project.  I want everyone to stand up, shout out, lean in every time you see something like this happen.


  1. You are completely correct to feel the way that you do. With that said just because you were the first to do it doesn't mean no one else ever will. I cannot think of any subject that was ever focused on by just one person.

  2. I understand that, but an acknowledgment would be "cool".

  3. Brian, But a nod to those who go before you is a nice courtesy, and to take it one step further, whatever that one step might be, is a good idea. Duplication is boring and almost by definition not artistic.

  4. I don't think the issue here is too nuanced for a non-techie to grasp. If I understand what's happening: two people are traveling to meet and photograph all their Facebook friends for a media and/or museum project. One of them started before the other but is getting less attention than the one who started later. The idea is an appealing and adventurous one, but could either of the two individuals involved here possibly think they are the only ones anywhere who have considered doing or attempted to do this? How can this be construed as Intellectual Property? Their results will inevitably differ tremendously; any comparison between the two results will inform and enhance the other. They will both come out winners. Have they never heard of Picasso and Braque at the beginning of Cubism?

  5. I wrote this post, not to be petty about who got more media attention. Even if I had IP legal ground, I have no interest in suing or cease and desisting him. This about doing your research before you start a project and understanding on a fundamental level what artistic integrity is. It's also about all of us, including the media asking ourselves questions about IP and about our own gender bias.

  6. I have been thinking about this, and your response, since you first sent it to me a couple of days ago, but my iPad wouldn't let me have easy access to the comment section, and that gave me a bit more time to articulate why this discussion is so important. For me, it has nothing to do with competition or "copying". IP is a slippery slope in one way, but the fundamental concept is really Intellectual Integrity, Intellectual Respect, Intellectual Collaboration. If you go to any museum, and read the plaques about a famous artist's work, they often contain references to other artists and the similarities, inspirations, inter-relationships, etc. I knew nothing about photography as art until you began your journey. I am constantly amazed at how you see the world, and your "friends" thru the camera. BUT, as importantly, you are constantly mentioning, giving credit to, describing the inspiration of other artists. THAT is what continues to be missing from this current discussion about Ty Morin.

    If he didn't know about your project when he started, he certainly does now, and the crux of the matter is his silence, not his idea for a FB project.

  7. Yes Noah, Picasso and Braque is a good comparison from about 1904 thru 1910 they were inseparable. They worked closely and though had different temperaments and methods they were collaborators. Nobody is saying that it is wrong to take from someone and then go one step further or do parallel works, but this is different. It is a taking without even a "by your leave"

  8. Nodding my head here in agreement with Jed, and LuckyH.

    I am not an artist, but a scientist and educator by training, but it seems the same professional etiquette should apply across disciplines. Prior to embarking on a professional project, and I believe Mr. Morin is a professional photographer and views this as a professional endeavor, you check out the work that is going on in that area, you research, you may well reach out and collaborate, and you ask yourself what am I going to add to the conversation, how is my perspective going to enrich this conversation. My concern in this situation is that Mr. Morin, is undertaking this project, exploring the nature of friendship in the light of social media using portraits, in the public sphere without referencing others undertaking such work and is pursuing a project that is not only similar, but indeed almost identical. What does it add to the conversation?

    This is not just a question of a photographer taking portraits, indeed Mr. Morin's images are taken from a different perspective, rather this is a part of a larger and important intellectual conversation about the nature of friendship in this time. It is not that Mr. Morin should not pursue this project, rather that if he truly wants to add to the conversation he needs to engage with those already taking part rather than presenting his idea as novel and a solo voice. As Ms. Hollander has mentioned her post she has reflected at length about this before commenting on this behavior. I would argue that it is an unfortunate, but necessary discussion that has to be had.

  9. Let me first say that i apologize if i do not understand all of the details of your situation. Secondly, you should know that i am a staunch advocate of intellectual property rights and the protections that current copyright law offers artists. That being, said the simple fact of the matter is that ideas are not copyrightable (and with good reason). Given the now preponderance of social media and the dramatic shifts with how we all relate to each other I would not be surprised at all if there are scores of other artists out there working on similar projects. Who had the "idea" first? The idea that your engagement of this project should preclude other artists interpretations of the theme would be the antithesis of the promotion of artistic exploration. Is the other photographer copying your lighting style, a post-production technique, well yes this would be annoying but you cannot copyright something that any artist might primarily use as a tool in creating a distinctive piece of art. What is copyrightable is the physical execution, and in this case it would protect your images from unlicensed usage (infringement). I think we will all face times in our career when artists are pursuing very similar themes. All we can do is make "our" art, create expressions that are genuine to "our" vision. I believe artists must protect their IP, and when necessary and just pursue settlements against wrongful infringements. There does not seem to be any infringement here and as artists we just must acknowledge that other artists will sometimes pursue similar ideas or themes. Don't let this steal your energy. Give your energy to "your" art.


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