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Legal Affairs: The Rip-Off Artist

Did director James Cameron steal famous photographs?


At this year’s academy Awards ceremony, Titanic’s James Cameron was fêted as a filmmaker of many talents -- director, producer, editor, king. One talent that went unrewarded that night, however, was his drawing ability, which was also highlighted in the film. Indeed, in one beloved scene, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character shows Kate Winslet’s character his sketchbook full of charcoals of nude women, drawings that Cameron himself has happily claimed credit for producing.

The director, however, has been somewhat less forthcoming about admitting that three of these sketches bear a striking resemblance to famous photographs: Sally Mann’s Rodney Plogger at 6:01, Alfred Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands, 1920, and Brassaï’s “Bijou” of Montmartre. Before the film’s release, however, none of these artists (or their estates) had granted permission for the works to be used, and their appearance in the film raised eyebrows throughout the art world.

“I was stunned at the alarming resemblance to photographs with which, naturally, I’m intimately familiar,” says Susan Arthur Whitson, director of the Edwinn Houk Gallery, which represents Mann and Brassaï and sometimes Stieglitz.

“Anybody who’s knowledgeable about the history of photography would recognize that these drawings were copies of famous photographs,” adds Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art.

And that makes it a clear case of copyright infringement, according to Nancy E. Wolff, a partner at Cavallo Wolff & Wolf, attorneys for the Picture Agency Council of America. “Just because you change the medium from photography to sketches, that does not permit you to copy,” she says, citing the case successfully brought against Jeff Koons, who used another artist’s photograph as the basis for a sculpture.

“It’s not just tacky; it’s illegal,” agrees a prominent entertainment lawyer. “If it’s not complying with copyright law, each and every time this film is shown, that constitutes a publication of copyright-infringing material.”

Normally, movies are fastidiously vetted by lawyers to avoid this type of problem. Cameron would not comment, but a spokesperson for Paramount, which released the film, dismisses the suggestion of any impropriety. “There were some sketches in the film that were inspired by other works,” he says. “All necessary arrangements were made to everyone’s satisfaction. But the artists did not really want publicity on this, so they’ve asked for their names not to be disclosed.”

That’s news to Madame Gilberte Brassaï, widow of the late photographer and executor of his estate. Speaking from Paris, she says that neither Cameron nor the studio has contacted her about securing rights to the photo. She is contemplating legal action, though “it’s very hard to go after these people,” she says. “It’s so much trouble with the lawyers and the papers and everything you have to do to pursue something like this.”

But Sally Mann apparently did make the effort to go after Cameron. “I think the issue is clear that Sally believes that her photograph inspired the sketch,” says her husband, Larry, an attorney. “There is an agreement to allow the sketch to be used in the movie,” he continues, choosing his words carefully, but “if the question is whether there was prior agreement, the answer is no. And that’s all I can say.” According to art-world sources, Mann settled with Cameron shortly before filing a lawsuit, and as part of the deal, she agreed not to discuss the terms.

The Stieglitz estate, meanwhile, was unaware of the matter. “I didn’t see the movie,” says Elizabeth Glassman, president of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation (which handles the rights to Stieglitz’s work). “But I’ve talked to one of our attorneys, and we’re figuring out what to do. Stieglitz has been dead for more than 50 years, so theoretically his work is in the public domain. In Europe, though, copyrights don’t run out for 70 years, so we’ll just have to see what happens.”

Cameron may not be willing to discuss the copyright case publicly, but in the recent past, he has gladly accepted compliments for the drawings. “Mr. Cameron, you do beautiful artwork,” one fan of the sketches wrote to him during a live, online chat at Titanic’s official Website. “Do you have any other artwork that we can see from you?”

“Yes, I’ve been an illustrator for many years and I’ve tried to stay current with the drawing skills,” Cameron replied. “In case the directing thing doesn’t work out.”


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