Two separate lawsuits have brought about conversations over uncredited use of visual art.
Ariana Grande and Kendrick Lamar have both been accused of illegally using images by visual artists in two recent plagiarism cases. Within the past year, contemporary artists have brought lawsuits against both these superstars for ripping off their work in music videos. Cases like these raise questions about the ownership of creative output and about the distinction between inspiration and outright theft.
Last October, Lina Iris Viktor accused Lamar and SZA of using her “Constellations” series in their video “All the Stars” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack. Vladimir Kush, in a more recent case, charged Grande with copying his paintings, “The Candle” and “The Candle 2,” in her “God is a Woman” music video.
Other famous cases of accused copyright infringement are generally between musicians; instances of images in copyright cases are more unusual. Recently, for example, Marvin Gaye’s family took Robin Thicke and Pharrell to court over similarities between Gaye’s 1977 song “Give it Up” and Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” The jury ultimately ruled in favor of the Gaye estate, awarding them $7.4 million. Similarly, Vanilla Ice chose to pay royalties to David Bowie and Queen to avoid a court case over the similarities between “Ice Ice Baby” and “Under Pressure.”
Viktor’s case against Lamar hinges on the appearance of black and gold stylized motifs and geometric patterns in his video that are emblematic of Viktor’s work. Although Marvel had approached the young British-Liberian artist asking to use visuals from her art in “Black Panther,” Viktor thought the terms were unfavorable and ultimately denied their request. Despite her denial, evidence of Viktor’s imagery is apparent in the “All the Stars” video, around the three minute mark, for a 20 second segment. Almost exact comparisons between Viktor’s geometric patterns in “Constellations” are seen in the video, constituting a sufficient case for copyright infringement.
In December, though, Viktor’s case was dismissed in court and settled on undisclosed terms. Viktor complained about the irony of this case being brought against a song from “Black Panther.” She expressed incredulity in an interview with the New York Times that “[Black Panther] is about black empowerment, African excellence — that’s the whole concept of the story. And at the same time, they’re stealing from African artists.”
Grande’s video “God is a Woman” was produced by the same company, Freenjoy, Inc., that produced “All the Stars.” Russian-American artist Kush filed a lawsuit against Grande based on overwhelming similarities between her music video and two of his paintings, “The Candle” and “The Candle 2.” Around the 1 minute 10 second mark of “God is a Woman,” a four-second clip of Grande dancing in the flame of a candle plays over a clouded sky background. Grande’s music video uses the same color palette as well as similar light work. This provides the basis for Kush’s second copyright suit, the first of which was settled with singer P!nk when her music video “U + Ur Hand” was found guilty of copying Kush’s “Countess Erotique” in 2008.
Imagery from other notable works appear in Grande’s work, especially in “God is a Woman,” which ends on a still of her posing as God in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” She also references the Roman sculpture “Capitoline She-Wolf” in the same video. Last year, she used Michelangelo’s work in her dress for the Met Gala, which was decorated with scenes from his rendering of “The Last Judgment.” Similarly, Grande incorporated iconic imagery in her performance at the MTV Music Video Awards when she recreated Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” with all female dancers.
Grande’s incorporation of these aesthetics, though, does not violate copyright regulations in the way that her use of Kush’s images does. Works by Michelangelo and Leonardo, for example, have entered the public domain and are no longer protected by intellectual property laws that still apply to Kush’s “The Candle” and “The Candle 2.”
This year, a major extension on copyright coverage expired, allowing works by artists like Picasso and Matisse made in 1923 to be entered into public domain. These were set to be released in 1989, but lobbyists for major entertainment businesses pushed Congress to pass the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act. Without another major act like this, major works like “The Great Gatsby” and even the character of Mickey Mouse will become public domain in the next five years.
However, works that are still protected by copyright laws can be disputed in cases against artists like Grande and Lamar. Kush and Viktor may be paid royalties on the profits made from music videos because of their contributions. Alternately, settlement cases may simply retroactively compensate the visual artists for use of their work in the music videos.
These two cases draw attention to the importance of recognizing artistic integrity and ownership in contemporary art. Bringing major artists like Grande and Lamar to court over these disputes ensures that they are held accountable regardless of their growing fame. Without this accountability, the entertainment industry can take advantage of vulnerable artists. Necessitating due recognition of every individual ensures opportunities for more artists.