While the fusion of art and fashion is far from novel, it is taking center stage in Jeff Koons’ new collaboration with Louis Vuitton. For a collection of handbags, the New York-based artist has taken a handful of Old Masters paintings – such as "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci, "Mars, Venus and Cupid" by Titian, "The Tiger Hunt" by Peter Paul Rubens, "Young Girl Playing with her Dog" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard and "Wheatfield with Crows" by Vincent Van Gogh – mixed in elements of the Louis Vuitton Toile monogram and added the artist’s name in block lettering. The end results are slated to retail for between $585 and $4000.
So, what exactly is the protocol when a designer or artist samples (to put it in musical terms) the work of another artist? Well, it depends, but in the case at hand, the answer is pretty straightforward. It is perfectly legal … at least in terms of copyright law.
A bit of the unavoidable copyright law background is this: The creator of an original work is granted a bundle of exclusive rights in the work. This includes the right make and distribute copies of the works, to create derivative works based on the original, and to display the works publicly. Because the Copyright Act has changed a bit over time, the duration of protection for a work depends on a few things, but we can break it down simply by saying that all works created/published prior to 1923 are in the public domain in the U.S., meaning that the copyright protection no longer applies and the works are essentially fair game to copy.
Works created in or after 1978 are granted copyright protection for a term ending 70 years after the death of the author. I have left out the years in the middle because they are subject to an array of complications stemming from the need to publish and register a copyright, and renew it, etc., none of which apply here given that the works at issue were all created long before 1923. The most recently created of the works is “Wheatfield with Crows,” which Can Gogh painted in 1890. The others range from 1503 to 1765.
So, what does this mean for the Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons collection, as it clearly contains the once-copyrighted protected works of da Vinci, Titian, Rubens, Fragonard and Van Gogh? More specifically, a question that is frequently posed in connection with such usages, did Louis Vuitton and/or Koons have to pay the late artists’ foundations for rights in connection with the recently-revealed collection? And the answer is no.
Since all of the works were created prior to 1923, they all reside in the public domain, thereby, removing any need for Louis Vuitton or Koons to gain authorization to copy the original work or for brand to pay a royalty fee. The same logic goes for Rodarte's use of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night and Sunflower Series for Spring/Summer 2012, Dolce & Gabbana's continued utilization of Byzantine art on its creations, and Virgil Abloh's use of Caravaggio on some of his early Off-White garments – just to name a few examples.
If, however, any of the original artworks included in the Louis Vuitton x Koons collab currently enjoyed copyright protection, the story would be different, and absent authorization (and a subsequent license) from the corresponding foundations (the organizations that holds any existing intellectual property rights stemming from the artist's work and name), it would certainly amount to copyright infringement.