Collaboration: A Subtle Art

Nikki Jee/New University

When artists collaborate, what are the legal issues behind that marriage and who owns what? For a craftsperson, these questions of a legal nature may not be particularly pressing points of interest. Yet it was precisely this topic that brought lawyers, artists, professionals and professors together in a discussion called “The Legal Side of Art Collaboration.”

The panel consisted of Joseph Lewis, dean of Claire Trevor School of the Arts; Antoinette LaFarge, professor of digital media; campus counsel Kyhm Penfil; Jonathan Pink, chair of Internet and new media for Bryan Cave LLP; and Tony Reese, Chancellor’s Professor for the UCI Law School. Each contributor brought a different angle and explanation for the subtle issues of art collaboration, credit and copyright.

The Colloquium Room in the Contemporary Arts Center was nearly filled on Tuesday, May 10. At 1 p.m., the event began with Dean Lewis’ story from “The Hollywood Reporter” concerning a “breach of an implied contract.” Two folks who claimed NBC/Universal stole their idea for the show “Ghost Hunters” took the television super-network to court — just one example of a sticky situation brought on by a need for legal work.

Professor Antoinette LaFarge gave the artist’s perspective, commenting on the difficulties young artists face under situations such as short production times, few resources and not much cash to work with.

“It’s not that artists don’t know about the law,” LaFarge said, “it also has to do with the fact that the law tailors itself against creativity. Artists aren’t going to try and understand every aspect of the law, they’re just going to work on a project and do it.”

Part of her focus is concerned with co-owning and partnerships between artists. She spoke on involuntary collaboration, collaborating with non-artists (such as scientists or corporate entities) and volunteerism, which refers to participating in the creation of the art but getting nothing in return, save the enjoyment of participating.

Professor Reese touched on the nuances of creation in his portion — he explained the author is the creator of the work, creation is the expression (not merely the idea), and expression must be fixed to be copyrighted. He also gave overviews of ownership, joint ownership, and the parameters and criteria that come along with it.

Along a similar vein, Jonathan Pink talked about copyright section 201b, which gives details on what to do if a previous agreement was not made between collaborators.

“Each artist owns individual fractional interest of the piece,” he said, explaining that the work is not divided by the quality or quantity of the artists’ contributions; rather, each owns a share of the entire work. It is imperative to maintain communication in the case of a collaboration, he continued, advising artists to identify the nature of the relationship: are you a hiring business and an employee, are you self-employed, or are you a contractor? In each case, there are different factors to look out for.

Kyhm Penfil spoke about the merits of knowing the rules of copyright ownership and how documentation in writing is imperative.

Additionally, she touched on the UC’s policy of copyrighting, which sets forth a handful of different works created in the university setting as an example of a way that modifying the default rules can bring more clarity about copyright ownership.