Art Rogers vs. Jeff Koons

Art Rogers who is a professional photographer took a black-and white photo of a man and woman sitting on a bench holding 8 puppies called “Puppies”  He used this photograph on various greeting cards and other generic merchandise. Jeff Koons, one of the most important living contemporary artists found this postcard and made a sculpture based on the photograph. The resemblance between the photograph and the sculpture is undeniable. However, there are some subtle differences found as is the case of the exaggerated noses of the puppies and some other added elements such as the flowers behind the woman’s ears. Jeff Koons created his work of art in 1988 and entitled it String of Puppies. This work became a success and Koons sold three editions for a total of $367,000. However, in May 1989 Rogers came acroos Koons sculpture on the front page of the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday calendar section. Once Rogers discovered the existence of these sculptures he went on to sue Jeff Koons and the gallery that represented him during that time, Sonnabend Gallery on the grounds of copyright infringement. Koons did not deny that he copied the photograph; however he claimed that it was fair use by parody. Parody is defined as the humorous form of social commentary and literary criticism in which one work imitates another.

ImageLeft: Art Rogers, Puppies, 1985.  Right: Jeff Koons, String of Puppies, 1988. Polychrome on wood.

In October, 1989, when Rogers filed suit against both Koons and his principal gallery, the Sonnabend Gallery. He sought at least $375,000 in compensatory damages, and $2.5 million in punitive damages. Unfortunately Jeff koons had ignored the copyright notice on the postcard that he copied. Additionally, there was proof that he didn’t merely want to appropriate the photograph but to copy it, as per his instructions to the craftsmen who were constructing the works he specifically instructed them to do the work based exactly on the photograph. He also asked his craftsmen to exaggerate certain aspects of the puppies characteristics such as their noses in order to create something found between real life and animation. Koons’ defense was that the Rogers note card represented an accurate depiction for the couple and their puppies. He argued that he merely borrowed information from the work and not any expression. Koons sold the allegedly infringing works for $375,000. Art Rogers every incentive to pursue the issue to trial, it also made Koons a wonderfully inviting target.

On December 10, 1990, Judge Charles Haight of the federal District Court in Manhattan granted summary judgment to the plaintiff. The jusge denied Koons’ claims of fair use. Koons was ordered to turn over all “infringing materials,” including a fourth edition of the sculpture, an artist’s proof.

For a detailed account you could click on the following link where you would find an extensive narrative by James Traub about the Art Rogers vs. Jeff Koons legal case for a series titled, Subjective Reasoning. This is the link for this essay.



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