Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Free-Lance Artists Press for Control of Their Work

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Free-Lance Artists Press for Control of Their Work

Article excerpt

IF, as Marcel DuChamp said, the artist defines art, who defines artist?

In the area of commercial art, legislators and the United States courts may be the ones. Courts all over the country have been hearing cases about whether commercial artists who do specific work for publishing companies, advertising agencies, and other firms are really "employees."

The difference between being a free-lance artist and an employee is that an artist may sell the original work while retaining copyright, or vice versa; an employee gives up both the work and all rights to it.

The latter instance reflects the meaning of "work for hire," a section of the 1976 Copyright Act that permits the employer to claim authorship of the work as well as own all worldwide rights. The cases that have been brought to court reflect disputes between the artists and those who commissioned work from them as to their legal status.

"Companies have twisted the definition of employee to mean anyone you have the right to control," says Paul Bassista, director of the Graphic Artists Guild. "These companies want the best of both worlds. They want free-lance artists to be employees, but they don't want to pay employee benefits. We define employee as the traditional salaried person on staff but, unless you are on staff, we don't feel that any work you do for that company is work for hire."

The US Supreme Court has entered this issue, hearing the case of James Earl Reid, a Baltimore sculptor who created a figurative sculpture entitled "Third World American" for the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a nonprofit advocacy group on behalf of the homeless. The agreement was sealed with a handshake. After receiving the work, Community for Creative Nonviolence began reproducing the sculpture's image on calendars and greeting cards as a means of raising money for the homeless. It also planned to make a copy of the piece to be displayed in Washington.

Mr. Reid contended that, under copyright law, he retains copyright unless he signs it away. The nonprofit group has argued that, according to a 1984 appellate court decision, any patron that exercises substantial control over an artist's work becomes an employer who may collect the piece and assume all copyrights. …

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