This story in today’s NYT about Seattle glass sculptor/industrialist Dale Chihuly only scratches the surface of the bitterness that surrounds his dealings with some members of the arts community.
The case sounds like another “can you copyright nature” kind of claim, but it seems more accurate to say that the case involves whether the plaintiff really owns what the plaintiff claims he owns — since he never, actually, made any of the glass sculptures involved. According to the Times:
He acknowledges that he has not blown glass for 27 years, dating from a surfing accident that cost him the full range of shoulder motion, an injury that struck three years after he had lost sight in his left eye in a traffic accident.
Still, Mr. Chihuly said, he works with sketches, faxes and through exhortation. Nothing with his name on it ever came from anyone but himself, he said.
Did that “exhortation” amount to “authorship” for copyright purposes? Or does the defendant — who blew glass under the plaintiff’s supervision — have his own “authorial” interests at stake? Take a look at this exhibit: a fax from the plaintiff to the defendant that communicates some sketches — and adds, “Here’s a little sketch but make whatever you want.” At the least, this sounds to me like the defendant has a plausible claim of joint authorship with respect to at least some of the plaintiff’s works. And the style of those works in general may be a product of the defendant as much as it is of Chihuly. If that’s right, then the defendant isn’t liable for copying — himself. If style can be owned, and if you own your style, then you’re allowed to express yourself. Just ask John Fogerty.