To Commerce Books / People In Trade

by Steve Canal Jones

Several months ago I attended a dinner party. After the usual courtesies, the conversation turned to intellectual property. It seemed there was an artist in the room who had had a run-in with corporate America concerning some film footage he was using in a video installation. This particular artist felt he had a right to use the film clip however he saw fit. Not surprisingly, the corporation felt it had the right to control the commercial exploitation of a product it had spent millions of dollars developing, producing and distributing, to the extent that the film in question, Blue Velvet, had become a fixture in the public imagination. The artist wanted to use that broad-based familiarity as the hook for what he had to say, as an artist, about a particular scene in the film. Common knowledge of Blue Velvet made it possible for him to cut to the chase, so to speak: to foreground his take on a precise moment in the film without having to construct every scene leading up to that moment himself.

This strategy made sense since, after listening to the artist speak for several minutes, it became clear that his art world ambitions were much greater than his capacity for producing a cult film classic of his own. Instead of talking about how he might structure a plot or light a scene or place his cameras, he talked about how once a piece of information entered his brain he believed it became his property, since his neurons were capable of processing Blue Velvet in such a distinctly subjective manner so as to be wholly distinct from David Lynchs version. As for the corporation in question, he was tired of the way such multinational tyrants exert their power over people, not only by claiming ownership of every inch of public media space but also the space of that information inside our heads.

After refilling my glass (Lucien Crochet, Croix du Roy Sancerre, 2005, very nice), I begged to differ. In fact, he, Kendall Geers, was the one behaving like a property-obsessed tyrant and Warner Brothers who was being free and reasonable. If David Lynch had the wherewithall to come up with Blue Velvet -- and Warner Brothers had the sense to option it, produce it and distribute it -- then good for all parties involved. Geers could at least thank them, send a check, or suffer the consequences of violating current copyright law, a theft that occurred as soon as he turned his "intellectual" absorption of Blue Velvet the movie into "property" that was for sale as his art. Further, I wondered, if Geers idea of the film was so unique to him, how could he still use a clip from Warner Brothers version of the film as a means to represent it?

Clearly, if Geers actually knew what he was talking about, or had anything truly original to say, he might feel differently about the long arm of intellectual property law. Intellectual property -- copyrights, trademarks and patents -- is designed to protect individuals as well as corporations. U.S. patent holders currently retain exclusive use of their invention for twenty years; copyright holders retain exclusive use for 85 years after the death of the author; trademark holders retain their rights in perpetuity. Given the digital revolution and the inversions of scale it has made possible in recent years, the value and power of intellectual property has clearly shifted toward individuals. So much so that corporate giants like Amazon and Xerox have begun lobbying for an across the board shortening of intellectual propertys exclusivity -- the length of time that the creator and the creator alone has the right to make use of their creation -- at the same moment that media giants like Disney and Warner Brothers are arguing for their extension. (To cite one example, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, wants to reduce the span of utility patents to five years.) Usually couched as a fight for the free exchange of information on a level playing field, a refrain that sounds eerily similar to the one we often hear from appropriation artists, such arguments as Bezos are little more than a thinly veiled desire to be able to raid intellectual property coffers much sooner than current law allows. Money, like business opportunities, moves fast these days. Whats Bezos to do if the innovation he needs now is exclusively owned by some Oakland-bound, Skechers-wearing yahoo? Until the year 2025?

Well I say: pay up, Jeffy boy. Bezos campaign -- and the creative labor market in general -- both suggest that the power relations between individuals and corporations have entered some serious flux. In a nation where three decades of downsizing, outsourcing and entrepreneurship have inspired one in five working adults to become independent contractors, freelancers have realized that the economic potential of working independently can be far more exhiliarating than the limited payday of corporate affiliation, whether that corporation is Warner Brothers or the art world. In other words, nothing is more powerful than being gainfully self-employed.


If you dont believe me, consider this: fourteen years ago Nathan Cohen, a freshly minted Ph.D. in radioastronomy at Cornell University, was fooling around with some cardboard and aluminum foil. Caught up in the then nascent fractals craze (dont worry if you missed it; the retro-revival should be coming around soon), Cohen was trying to construct a crude antennae for his HAM radio. Having attended a lecture by fractals guru Benoit Mandelbrot, Cohen had begun to wonder if Fractal Theory might have any practical applications in his field. Attracted to the spiraling compexity of Kochs triangle and the infinite potential of Sierpinski ribbon, Cohen imagined that the patchy reception and bulky size of conventional antennaes might be improved if constructed in fractal forms. His first cardboard and aluminum foil attempt, rendered with scissors and spray adhesive, looked like a pizza box-sized computer chip strung from his window sill.

As it turns out, Cohens protean, lo-fi antennae got great reception. Up to four times greater reception than antennaes twice its size -- that is, until his neighbor deemed it an eyesore and tore it down. Unfazed, Cohen maxed his credit cards researching and developing his design over the next several years. In 1995, Cohen founded Fractal Antenna Systems, Inc. ( and began shopping his idea around to potential manufacturers while seeking intellectual property protection for his idea. As is the way of all electronics, Cohens designs improved as their size reduced. Given that rule one of fractal patterns is that they are infinitely repetitive -- every fragment being both a macrocosm and microcosm of the same structure on every scale in all directions -- it followed that the more complex the fractal, the more powerful the antennae. Cohen spent years searching for the most compact fractal patterns, all the while striving for ever greater reception, until at one point the antennae became small enough to fit inside a mobile phone.

The rest, as they say, is history. Although his patents are still pending (and in constant need of defense), Cohen has signed a contract with T&M Antennae to manufacture millions of the miniaturized descendants of his original cardboard and aluminum foil eyesore. The postage stamp-sized antennae are already being installed in Motorolas new series of mobile phones, replacing the conventional stubby antennae with cheaper and more efficient fractal ones.

Now, should the same degree of originality and perseverance, the same faith in the transforming power of independent thought, be expected of contemporary artists? Should we be expected to achieve the same levels of ingenuity as creative individuals in other fields? And should art strive to have the same broad, paradigm-shifting effect on our lives as more heavily funded, commercially viable endeavors? No. We can go on indefinitely deconstructing our favorite television commercials and films, or making found object sculptures in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, or making a silkscreen of a photograph of a scan of a Warhol. But if were going to behave like authorities on culture in the same breath that we disdain its commerce and its laws, we would do well to admit that such measly snobbery no longer carries much weight.