Photography and Questions of Authorship

Layan Jawdat

The question of redefining “authorship” and “work” in ways that correspond with the realities of collective remix culture is certainly a difficult one. Balancing commercial rights of artists with the status of works as inspiration or objects that can be remixes seems to me to be a delicate process, but one that certainly requires a move away from the idea of authorship that seems to assume that works of art or creative expression are born out of cultural and artistic vacuums.

Photography is a particularly interesting and complicated domain in which we can debate these issues. The Rogers vs Koons, analyzed in the Peter Jaszi essay “On the Author Effect: Contemporary Copyright and Collective Creativity” case is one example that really shows the complexity of photographs as an art form to begin with, and also the issues around using photos as inspiration, or re-interpreting them. It is clear that Koons created a totally different work in his sculpture, but that it was some sort of re-interpretation of Rogers’ photograph. As Scott Bellum explains, paraphrasing Fairey, in “Lawrence Lessig & Shepard Fairey on Art, Commerce and Corruption,” “he saw that message was more potent when it drew upon other known references” and “spoofs only give more value to the original.” This argument points to the importance of recognizing the interplay between different works of art or cultural production–not only does the newer work of art draw upon the power of reference to an older work, but it also calls attention to the older work. I think this was also obvious from the example Nicholas presented in class a couple weeks ago, of Big Pimpin and the Egyptian song from which Timbaland sampled. The song’s popularity certainly brought attention to the Egyptian song “Khosara Khosara” to an audience that otherwise would have probably never heard of it.

Moving back to photography, it is particularly interesting to me to think about the role of the photographer in creating a work of art. While the photographer’s unique perspective and artistic touch often lies in the process of enframing, photographers are typically taking images that already exist (nature, people, things arranged a certain way, for example), snapping a photo, and then claiming it as his/her own. While I’m not arguing that the photographer has a role in this process, it seems absurd to keep photographs protected from inspiring other works of art when they themselves are drawing upon things that already exist (they are not always fully responsible for the contents of the images). Perhaps I am wondering what constitutes  something original or without referent. Jaszi eloquently describes the conundrum we face today legally, especially in an environment dominated by  Internet use, and increasingly “collective creativity”(Jaszi 55): “the idea of Romantic ‘authorship..’ has greater potential to mislead than to guide this new and promising communications technology”(Jaszi 56).


Works Cited

 Ballum, Scott. “Lawrence Lessig & Shepard Fairey on Art, Commerce and Corruption – PSFK.” PSFK. N.p., 07 Feb. 2009. Web. 08 Feb. 2014. <>.

Jaszi, Peter. “On the Author Effect: Contemporary Copyright and Collective Creativity,” in The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature, ed. Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 29–56.