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What we can Learn from A Bikini Model – Art and Copyrights

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Irina Krupnik Bikini Model Couples Retreat Photo rsSometimes being a control freak is not so bad.  Take, for example, when protecting your artwork and your image.  Never sign your rights away, unless you don’t care about your image. (Exceptions at bottom of post.)

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A BIKINI MODEL ABOUT ART AND COPYRIGHTS:

If only the beautiful former model, Irina Krupnik, had known how important it was to protect her pretty image.  It might have avoided humiliation and the need to file a $10 million dollar defamation lawsuit against NBC Universal.  But, oh, the perils of innocent youth!

You see, Irina’s not happy that a photo of her in a bikini has been used as a “randy” prop in a film called Couples Retreat.  And by “randy” I mean that her skin-baring image was made love to by a middle aged overweight character in the film.

I’ll be surprised if Irina wins this lawsuit, because she signed her rights away to a stock photo agency years ago.  Once your rights are signed away, the new owner can do anything with your image. They own it.   They can choose to sell it to someone else and if they wanted to, hell, they could even paint a mustache on Irina’s pretty face and use it to sell hemorrhoid cream to transvestites.  It’s theirs now, not hers.

Irina complains that she never would have allowed the sexy photo of herself to be transformed from swimwear to “soft porn.”  But it doesn’t matter what Irina wants, because she has no standing.  She signed her rights away. And now her image is tarnished.  She will forever be remembered as the girl who was master–bait in a movie that’s ironically becoming more popular because of her lawsuit.

What does a model in a bikini being used for porn have to do with artwork? It proves my point that once you sell your rights away, you no longer have rights.  That’s what selling, granting or giving rights away means.  You transfer ownership over to someone else. And they can do anything they want with it.

I don’t blame her for being upset.  I would be, too.  But she signed that  piece of paper, and in doing so she gave permission.  A hard lesson learned.  Perhaps models should start adding to their release documents a statement that specifies that porn, soft porn and anything related is off limits.  But I doubt any photo agency would buy on those terms – there are a million other models who would agree to sign it all away.

Recently I was interviewed on fire-bowl artist John T. Unger’s fabulous Art Heroes Radio Show.  (You can listen to it now!)  The topic was Licensing and John asked me what artists could do to get their start in Art Licensing.

I said that one of the most important things an artist should do is to make sure they own and keep all of their copyrights. This doesn’t mean you have to file your art copyright through http://www.copyright.gov (although you should) what it means is that you should never sign your copyrights away to anyone else.

The moment you create an artwork or photograph, you are the owner of the copyright (unless you create it while employed by someone.)  That ownership doesn’t change hands unless you sign something that says you are transferring rights to someone else.

It’s so important to keep control over what happens to your art and images that I will continue to nag over and over again until finally, artists will drop in exhaustion and get what I’m saying:

Having complete ownership of your copyrights and your artwork is what will enable you to control how your art (and YOU) is presented to the world.

If you sign over your copyrights, the new owner can take it and bastardize it.  If you have a recognizable style, this will hurt you.  This will hurt your career.  This will hurt your reputation.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG? Come now, you say.  I’m being too dramatic.  What’s the harm in selling the rights to one little painting? You aren’t going to miss it.  It can’t make a difference.

I’ll explain one of a million things that can go wrong, just like Irina and her sexy bikini photo:

Let’s say you have a very distinct art style, like Keith Haring does.  When someone sees your art, they know it’s yours before they even see your signature.  You have a lot of fans who love you.  You have taken great pride in keeping your artwork pure and not “selling out” with it.  Your fans appreciate that.

Then you were commissioned to create a painting for a client to use in an advertising campaign.  It was a respectable one for a cool product like Absolute Vodka.   You were excited!  And in your excitement, you signed a “work for hire” agreement, which says that you agree to give all rights to the image to the company.  What could go wrong?

Years go by, and you are suddenly getting hate mail from some of your fans.  They are angry that you are selling $3.00 cheaply made t-shirts at Wal-Mart.  They are incensed.  You’re confused.  You find out that the company you signed your rights away to earlier then sold the rights to a trinket manufacturer in China that makes cheap tees and sells in Wal-Marts all over the world.

Your image has now been tarnished and you’ve lost many fans over it.

This is an extreme example, but very possible.

If you want to be an artist that’s remembered for a particular style, and if you want to have control over what happens to your art, and your reputation, never sign your rights away.

Literally and figuratively, protecting your image is crucial if you are going to have any control you’re your future success.

It’s too late for Irina.  But it’s not too late for you to be control freak when it comes to your artwork.  Sometimes being a control freak is a good thing!

Maria xxoo

*Exception to the “never sign your rights away” rule:  Illustrators will have to sign rights over to their clients if creating logos, or if creating artwork for movie posters or images that are trademarked (like Sesame Street Characters, Jimmy Hendrix image, etc.).  But if you are drawing and painting and illustrating in your own style, with your own signature, and you want your name and style to be known, keep your copyrights.

UPDATE TO THIS ARTICLE on October 18, 2010:  The result of the model’s lawsuit was this:

The Russian beauty sued the film’s distributor, NBC Universal, in March, claiming it “published [her] likeness in a vulgar context.”

But Manhattan Supreme Court Judge O. Peter Sherwood ruled that Krupnik signed away her rights to the photo at the time of the shoot and knew full well that it could be resold for commercial purposes.

You can read more about it in the New York Daily News.   To quote the tweet of my Entertainment Attorney Friend, Gordon Firemark, “Irina Krupnik lost… I guess pretty girls don’t ALWAYS get their way.”

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23 Comments What we can Learn from A Bikini Model – Art and Copyrights

  1. Pingback: Links – March 19, 2010 « Beautiful Flower Pictures Blog: Floral Photography by Patty Hankins

  2. Archan Mehta

    Maria,

    I am afraid the image of the bikini babe has only managed to send my blood pressure soaring like the clouds which hang in the sky.

    I have a few questions and I hope you can provide the answers.

    Is Irina single? Is Irina available? What’s Irina’s phone number?
    Irina is in serious trouble. Does Irina need a shoulder to cry on?
    If Irina is loaded, does she need somebody to unload her bank balance? If Irina has a significant other, how do we make him insignificant to her life?

    Oh, I have a plan: how about hiring a hit man–an Italian mob boss–who uses weird hand gestures, smokes a cigar, is always dressed in leather, eats calzone and spaghetti and pizza, and says things like, “Luigi, me and you were like real thick, man, and then youze decide to forsake da family for some chick in a mink coat, a plastic job, and a little money in the bank? Hey Luigi, ya crazy or somethin? Come over here, Luigi, and gimme a hug, whaddya say for cryin out loud? And don’t cha ever get outta my sight again, Luigi, ya hearin’ me?”

    Anyway, jokes aside, I think it is only practical to do what’s in your self-interest. I don’t think that means you are a control freak. It can only mean you’re pragmatic. You have to be careful about such matters. Otherwise, the big, bad world out there can take you to the cleaners. And probably there are several unintended consequences, which you did not even mention. Better to be safe than sorry. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Yes, Archan, sex sells. That’s why throwing a bikini model photo on my blog every now and again is a good thing! Seriously, though, it’s an interesting case and I know she won’t win it. I’m now wondering if it’s just a publicity stunt…

      Reply
  3. deni

    $10 million suit? guess she’s tired of doing make-up. this kinda puts her in a bad light. if i were a male celebrity i would be worried about her doing my makeup. what if i accidentally stared at her breasts as she applied foundation? what if i were old, and especially unattractive – which is especially offensive to her. that’s the thing about these kinds of publicity – this “negative” drama, attention. i think it backfires a lot.

    but your point is taken, don’t sign away copyrights!
    thanks for the reminder maria 🙂

    Reply
  4. Maria Brophy

    Sharon: Yes, I remind Drew every day how lucky he is!

    Deni: You are too funny! And right. Thanks for commenting!

    Reply
  5. linda

    Wow, pretty scary what can happen…I’m a total newbie and wish one day my artwork can be licensed for products, but I wonder how much “say” we can get. I suppose it’s the beginner’s – taking anything kind of issue…

    Reply
  6. Gregory Hall

    Maria, Did you ever see the short lived reality show “Chasing Farrah!”? Maybe you can see the episodes via Hulu.com, TV-Dome.net, or others. Anyway, Farrah Fawcett retained copyrights to her image, and the show pictured her creating some beautiful large scale portraits of herself. She made million$ from the one big haired poster she is most famous for. She was far from the dizzy, doped up Hollywood Blonde, and certainly you can find inspriation if you can see her last TV shows.

    Reply
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  8. christel

    Reading this I understand how lucky we are in France !

    Here author rights are protected : no one can spoil your image, modify your art without your allowwance, and noone has the rights to erase your name from your work. It’s the law. You just have to declare it to taxes and insurrance. Unfortunately many artists don’t know or don’t do. So they get problems.
    It’s often a fight to explain that to clients, (I’m graphic designer, illustrator and painter, and use/contracts are subtly differents).
    It’s often a fight to have a contract before working, so I transform the quote in “terms of services” that give restrictions on what is sold : work sold for this newspaper only, for only one issue, for one year etc. all other rigths reserved.
    When I sold a piece of art I think it’s easier because the art is done and won’t be “wasted” if people don’t pay.
    But does the people get “all the rights” by default in selling their art ?
    Perhaps it’s very different in US ?

    Reply
  9. Maria Brophy

    Thanks for the comment Christel. In America, your artwork copyrights belong to you automatically when you create it, just like in France. However, if you sign your rights away (like the case with the model), then you’ve transferred your rights. And once you transfer your rights, you have no say in what happens to you art, photos, likeness, etc.

    Reply
  10. Christel

    Thanks for answering me. I was looking for informations on this topic : differences between countries,considering artists and their work, to pay more attention to “contracts” especially on websites galleries wich have sometimes terms of use very surprising and unkind ! but it’s another problem than bikini :°)

    Reply
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  14. Michael Adams

    Hi Maria,
    Great articles about Picasso & then Irina Krupnik. I had wondered if I could use images from paintings I’ve already sold to make print-on-demand giclee prints from. Can I do that? The only items I’ve sold so far have been original paintings?
    Thanks,
    Michael

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Michael, thanks for the question. The answer is: YES, you can make prints from your original paintings, because as the artist you own the copyrights to your art images (unless you signed your copyrights away in a written document.) If you did not sign your copyrights over to someone else, then you can do anything you want with the images. You can sell prints, you can license them out to companies, you can print them on anything you want. The person who purchased the original painting has only one right to the image, and that is, to hang it on the wall. As the artist, you own all other rights.

      Reply
  15. Yadaleo

    So much to do… There has to be an easier way to get In the world of selling art.. And be successful?.. Help me help the next stirving artist. be happy doing what we love and being able to take care of our families .. If you can do this please contact me at yadaleo@gmail.com

    Reply
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  17. Julie

    Hi Maria,

    How about, you never signed any agreement whatsoever and your artwork is used on all sorts of products to make a profit? How about you are working for hire, without having signed anything?
    In this case, am I still the owner of the artwork and can I claim what is mine, even if the company registered the designs as being theirs?

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Julie, to answer your question – if you were creating art for a client, working as a freelancer, with no written agreement, then the art and its copyrights belong to you.

      If you created the art for a company while working for them as an employee, then the copyright ownership is in the name of your employer.

      Reply

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