Indonesian Theme Park Filled With Art Knockoffs Illustrates Challenges In Defending Copyrights Across Borders
05/08/2018Earlier this year, doors opened at “Rabbit Town,” a peculiar theme park in the city of Bandung on West Java in Indonesia. The park features a variety of attractions, including a petting zoo and amusement rides, but its primary appeal seems to be as a “selfie tourism” destination, where visitors can photograph themselves and their friends amidst a variety of fantastical backdrops and share their snaps on social media.
And among the visual attractions gracing Rabbit Town are some familiar sights: the park appears to have recreated a number of famous art installations from across the globe. The park features its own versions of works including the interactive installation Obliteration Room by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama; Urban Light, by Chris Burden, an installation featuring rows of lampposts, the original of which is at LACMA in California; a mural featuring angel wings by artist Colette Miller; and multiple immersive spaces that seem to be lifted from displays at the Museum of Ice Cream in Miami. The Rabbit Town versions often have different titles and do not acknowledge the work of the original artist.
None of the artists whose works are copied have initiated any formal lawsuit, although officials from the Museum of Ice Cream have made statements to the press accusing Rabbit Town of “disregard” for artists’ intellectual property. One media account reported that Indonesian tourism authorities have encouraged Rabbit Town to at least provide visitors with information about which exhibits are “inspired by” other artists’ works, but it’s unclear whether that will happen.
The oddly audacious copying of artwork at Rabbit Town illustrates a simple fact about artists who want to defend their intellectual property rights; that mission gets more complicated when an issue crosses international borders, because there is no universal international copyright law that protects an artwork all over the world. Many countries have treaties with one another where they have reached certain agreements about how their copyright laws might interact. But as a general matter, each country makes its own copyright law. So even if an artist’s work is protected under, for example, United States copyright law, that doesn’t mean that those laws—or the powers of the U.S. court system—stretch across the globe. Rather, an artist would generally sue in the country where the infringement happened, and the case would be governed by that jurisdiction’s copyright law. Artists have to weigh whether to spend their time and resources to litigate in a foreign country.
Here, Rabbit Town’s versions of these artworks were created in Indonesia, and if that’s where the copying ended, then a lawsuit over Rabbit Town might need to be initiated there. But interestingly, the same social-media-savvy, “photo-op” nature of Rabbit Town might create a different legal angle; there might be an argument that the infringement didn’t happen entirely outside the United States because Rabbit Town is apparently also distributing photos of its copies using U.S.-based photo-sharing platform Instagram. So it’s possible that a U.S. court might be willing to hear an infringement case here on that basis; but speculation about that is difficult, particularly as court decisions are a bit unsettled on this issue.
In terms of what an infringement case might look like, it’s important to recall that copyright doesn’t protect a mere idea; rather, an artist only owns a copyright in his or her unique expression of an idea. (So for example, artist Colette Miller doesn’t own a copyright in the overall concept of painting human-sized angel wings on a wall; she can only copyright her own creative expression of that idea into a particular fixed work of visual art. See here for another post about this “idea/expression dichotomy” underpinning copyright law.) Depending on the particular case, there might be some questions here about whether Rabbit Town’s version of a given work is really so similar to the original that it constitutes infringement. (See here for a recent post about “substantial similarity” issues in copyright infringement cases.) On the other hand, photographs of Rabbit Town do seem to show a striking resemblance between several original immersive artworks and their Indonesian imitations.
The art world has been indelibly changed by the increasingly interconnected global marketplace of images. (Indeed, appropriation artist Richard Prince’s controversial “New Portraits” project arguably played with themes and questions about what art looks like in our social-media-happy culture. And our archives are full of cases involving independent artists whose work was allegedly ripped off by consumer brands who likely found their work on the internet.) In today’s connected world, there is more opportunity than ever to copy an artist’s works without permission, and the onus in most cases remains squarely on the artist to undertake the expenditure of time, money, and energy to seek redress.
Art Law Blog