Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct for the Copying of Other People’s Work

Op-ed Apr 30, 2010 9 Comments

Carrie Miller reports on the development of new ethics guidelines for artists wanting to copy the work of others…

Regardless of where you stood on the issue of Sam Leach’s winning entry in this year’s Wynne Prize, it appears the controversy has sparked some in the art world into action on the issue of copying in art. The premier example of this is the Australia Council’s recent announcement that they will be drawing up formal guidelines in relation to the matter.

The Council’s decision to establish an Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct for the Copying of Other People’s Work came about not only as a consequence of the controversy surrounding Leach’s Wynne entry, but also because of long-standing allegations of unscrupulous behaviour within the contemporary art world more generally. As a spokesperson for the council said last week:

“Since the rise of postmodernism, we have been alerted to a number of instances of ‘copying’ by Australian artists. After investigating these allegations, we discovered that this has apparently been going on since the beginning of Western art history. It’s time that formal guidelines were put in place to clarify this sometimes ethically grey area, not only for artists, but for collectors and the art-going public.”

The Code is an attempt to negotiate the legal, cultural, ethical and economic issues at stake in work not deemed “truly original”. It aims to establish a number of minimum standards of appropriate and ethical conduct as agreed by the industry and other stakeholders, with the overall aim “to improve the transparency of inspiration across the visual arts sector” and “to clearly define the rights and responsibilities of artists in relation to the authorship of artworks”.

The author’s own drawing below Manet’s ‘Olympia’. Artistic inspiration or just plain forgery? You be the judge.

While the process is in its early stages, with submissions for a Draft Code only just being called for, one prominent art critic from a leading Australian newspaper – who spoke on the condition of anonymity – believes that any comprehensive Code needs to “quantify, on a sliding scale, the degrees to which an artist has copied another person’s work”. He also argues that the government “should implement a scheme where work is clearly labeled according to the extent to which it draws on previous work”. This critic has already drafted his own proposed scale which he will be submitting to the Australia Council for consideration. The Art Life obtained a copy of this earlier today:

  • 10% imaginatively draws on
  • 20% influenced by
  • 30% heavily influenced by
  • 40% heavily under the influence
  • 50% in the style of
  • 60% derivative of
  • 70% appropriated
  • 80% pastiche
  • 90% plagiarised
  • 100% forgery

The idea is that a regulatory body would be set up to assess all work to be publicly displayed or privately collected and given a rating based on such a scale. This would potentially have far-reaching implications for the Australian art market. If, for example, a work was determined to be 50% copied, it may not hold its value as much as one judged to be only 10% replicated.

No doubt, the charge of paternalism will be levelled at those who seek to codify artistic practice, most likely from that section of the arts community that took offence to government intervention in Bill Henson’s public display of nude adolescents. But so far only a couple of individual gallery operators have been prepared to speak out against the move. One claims the importance of the need to avoid “a paternalistic or prescriptive approach to artistic practice”, arguing, ”What right do we have to codify what an artist is allowed to represent?”

Regardless of this type of dissent from the ‘avant-garde’ segment of the art world, it appears likely that artists will finally have to take responsibility for what they produce. If the Code of Conduct gets ups it may put an end to the feeling by many in the community that they are being “taken for a ride by a bunch of charlatans” as Ashley from Crows Nest put it in a recent letter to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Submissions for the Draft Code are now being taken by the Council. Whatever its final form takes, it’s sure to be controversial.

If you would like to submit your ideas for the Code, you can post them as readers’ comments below and The Art Life will pass them on to the Australia Council as part of its own submission.

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Carrie Miller


  1. Jake

    Nice derivative of drawing, in your version the maid appears to be displaying a baby to a disinterested mother. Its a nice comment on the pressure of both parents to work in order to service a crippling mortgage whilst having a little dig at the ABC learning centers debacle.

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  3. Beck

    What is the international context for this? What other countries are demanding of their artists that they submit their work to this kind of uninformed, amateurish scrutiny? (and on the same note, what other countries are demanding that artists pay to have their work classified as not-child-porn?) Did the work of Duchamp, Sherrie Levine and hundreds of other artists just never happen? What a sad, retrogressive, market-driven time this is for art.

  4. The Australian art world is not a singular entity and the idea that an industry or government organization can police it for breaches of so-called ethical codes conduct is totally ludicrous.

    Besides the obviously lumpy quality of writing, the very phrase Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct for the Copying of Other People’s Work totally ignores the art historical importance of appropriation as a completely legitimate artistic device. Appropriation is not stealing or forgery although it may look like it to those bereft of the most basic understanding of art. Instead of laying down blanket rules about how artists are allowed to express themselves, perhaps there should be focus instead on publicly addressing the challenges of the application of modern-art practices to fields of art (such as landscape) that generally like to pretend they live in the pre-modern past.

    Like it or not, the role of art in the world since the birth of modernism in 1880 is to challenge cultural axioms and this TOTALLY paternalistic graduated scale of acceptability will likely act as a further prod for Australian artists to leave Australia for the more accepting art markets of Europe and the US.

    Is Leach’s prize-winning painting a forgery? No way. It’s a solid case of appropriation. Obviously, working in a form as conservative as landscape, he should have known better and openly cited his inspirations, but his failure to do so doesn’t make him fraudulent, it simply makes a bit shifty.

    Furthermore, the Australian art world is not a sealed sphere of activity. It takes place in the context of the larger art world. Provisos such as this one will only serve to make Australia look unsophisticated and parochial in an international context. Not the best move.

  5. hugh

    Call the Tate! This is so impressively ambitious. A committee set up to measure replication and meaning in meaning defying Post-Modernist images! But sadly, i’m not sure how effective it will be. Perhaps in commercial interests the best solution is to legislate against post-modernism itself? Or even all art.

  6. Mrs. Woman

    @ Shilo – I am reminded of the words of your eponymous song:

    …Young girl with fire
    Something said she understood…

    Oh – And also this from Steve Miller:

    …I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker
    I sure don’t want to hurt no one (Ooo Ooo)…

  7. ushere

    jolly good idea….

    but should be expanded to cover all media – and politicians.

    sadly though, it simply reflects the sad dearth of original thinking by those who have to resort to copying others ideas…

  8. Dek

    What if the appearance of another artists work is used to comment on style and period. Say it was an appropriation to define a circumstance where appropriation was being commented on. This issue is so literal it is an embarassment.

  9. Mayhem

    I can’t see the value in judging a work on a sliding scale of the degree to which it has been copied without also considering the “original” which is allegedly being copied. I would assume that the more famous the original, or the more pivotal it’s role in art history, the more likely that it’s use by the second artist is in the form of a comment and less likely to be a shifty attempt to rip off someone else’s work.

    I’m also a little surprised that “originality” features so frequently in these discussions. Artists have sought to break free from the bonds of the original since the early 1900s. Hence Duchamp, Man Ray, Warhol, Klein, Lewitt etc.

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