Peter Coulson and I Discuss the Potentially Illegal Sale of His Photo by Richard Prince

Peter Coulson and I Discuss the Potentially Illegal Sale of His Photo by Richard Prince

It's never a bad day, or more often evening, when I get to Skype with Peter Coulson, an artist I am proud to say is my friend, from his place in Melbourne, Australia. However, our most recent Skype discussion was totally hinged around the controversy surrounding Richard Prince's appropriation and subsequent sale of prints featuring Instagram screenshots of photos by other photographers. One of these photos, in fact, was shot by Coulson. I asked him about it, and we chatted.

First off, I want to immediately address this article's title. It says "Potentially Illegal Sale", as opposed to declaring Prince's print sales as being obviously illegal, because, as I noted in a previous article, the matter isn't totally obvious. Yet. And since this whole matter will almost certainly lead to copyright law changing, as mentioned by copyright attorney John Arsenault, "This hasn’t been tested in the way [Prince] is doing it, by the courts, not specifically this question. I think this is open ended still, and it would be absolutely an interesting question to take to the courts."


The photo shot by Peter Coulson that was appropriated by Richard Prince from the model's Instagram account. Copyright © Peter Coulson Photographer

Legal details aside, on the surface most people are upset by what they are flat out calling art theft by Prince. As one can imagine, Coulson wasn't too tickled to discover one his own masterworks was directly involved in the whole mess. The Sydney Morning Herald was one of several Australian news outlets that reached out to him for comment, and as of this writing Coulson hasn't yet attempted legal action against Prince. But that's not to say he won't. Coulson made it quite clear that he sees Prince's actions as plainly illegal and immoral art theft.

Cheap t-shirts and cheap music. 

Curiously, this isn't Coulson's first issue with his photos being stolen for glaringly commercial purposes. In recent years, he has come to discover his work had been stolen for illegal sale of t-shirts bearing his images, untold amounts of casual downloads of his work off the web, and Coulson has even seen his images emblazoned on stage during a Motley Crue tour just a few years ago. All these appropriations were not authorized and illegal. Random people taking images off the web and using them illegally is nothing new (and neither is Crue being total shitheads) but as Coulson puts it, "You can't just give up. You have to fight it - for yourself, for the industry, for artists everywhere."

And fight it he shall. Coulson won't comment about any actual litigation that may or may not be in process, but he did say he "had plans" for how he would address the Richard Prince debacle.

The fact is, photographers fall victim to their images being downloaded every single minute of every single day online. However, when it's a fellow artist compiling a personal mood board for inspiration, or just a fan who wants a desktop wallpaper, no one bats an eyelash or worries for even a second. Things get ugly when photographers' work is downloaded, modified and then uploaded elsewhere, of course, but nothing is quite as egregious as what Richard Prince has done with his recent Instagram screenshots: profiting off of someone else's artwork. 

Peter Coulson in his self portrait. Copyright © Peter Coulson Photographer

Well, this isn't a new thing.

Yes, it's happened before, many times by Prince himself and the likes of Warhol before him, but this particular case stands out for one key reason. The photos in question were otherwise not modified by Prince, yet he printed them and sold them for enormous sums of money. The argument that "He was using a screenshot of the Instagram interface, complete with [Prince's] own comment shown, therefore it constitutes fair use under the premise that the printed screenshot has social value" falls on deaf ears when it comes to me. 

And, unsurprisingly, also when it comes to Peter Coulson.

"You don't need to do a federal copyright here in Australia, as in most countries. [The Unites States] is a rare example of where federal copyrights are available and encouraged," Coulson mentions, "And I'm not convinced they are worth doing, necessarily, but may have to consider it after all this."

Coulson is slated to start his first workshops tour of the U.S. this month, and as such will also likely be shooting a bevy of projects while he is here. Copyright concerns when it comes to the United States couldn't be closer to the forefront of his mind now, and I for one can't blame him.

Everyone has an opinion.

The art community, or rather a few dissenters who claim to speak for the art community, have derided me regarding my stance on the Richard Prince matter via comments, emails and messages on social media. These criticisms mainly cited my lack of open-mindedness about Prince's freedom of expression as an artist or my myopic view of what constitutes social value in the world of visual art. To me, social value in art should be inherently clear when one views said art, and not have to be overly justified. If the artist is trying to send a message to the public, to the masses, then the message should be clear and succinct, and ideally emotionally moving.

Andy Warhol's soup cans and quadrant silk screens, though now iconic, are mostly contrived, repetitive and evoked zero emotion from me. Richard Prince's Instagram screenshots evoke the exact same, if not theoretically less.

No one said art has to be particularly good to be groundbreaking or become iconic, but to disrespect other artists by printing screenshots of their work is unacceptable in my worldview. And unlike Warhol's appropriations, modern computer technology plays a role in how I assess the situation when it comes to Prince.

Allow me to explain. Almost no one is emotionally moved by me downloading a JPG file of a photographer's image onto my iMac, opening it up in Microsoft Word to size it on a letter sized document and add my name to the top of it in Helvetica Neue typeface, and then printing it at FedEx Kinko's as a new piece for me to put up for auction. Almost no one calls that art or is moved by the total lack of personal artistry in that scenario considering I started the entire process with someone else's photo. Why? Because almost every computer-owning putz with an internet connection could do the exact same thing here in 2015.

At least Warhol had to put some effort into his silkscreens, although he would be the first to openly admit they were manufactured en masse in order to sell more. On top of that, even after his death, the world discusses (argues?) the social value in his works, especially when, as reported in 2012, the Andy Warhol Foundation chairman stated "We're converting art into money," when the Wall Street Journal talked to him about a then recent announcement that the Foundation would be selling upwards of 20,000 Warhol art pieces almost all at once. Where is the social value in purging thousands of works to "convert it to money"? I'm certain Warhol wouldn't give a shit, and would have applauded (if not initiated) that move in 2012, and I'm equally certain Prince doesn't lose sleep at night about his far less interesting Instagram appropriations.

And yes, I know for example, if you have to explain Pink Floyd's The Wall to someone who is hearing it for the first time, they simply may not get it and perhaps explaining can help them get their head around the many messages and themes throughout the record. However, to compare a double album of recorded music and lyrics to a handful of printed enlargements of Instagram screenshots is, in my opinion, utterly misguided - so I won't.


Esotericism in art is hardly new, and actually mostly strived for by many artists. There is perhaps something satisfying about creating artwork that isn't immediately understood or perhaps isn't possible to understand because it's random, or highly abstract. I get that. I'm no art gallery frequenter, and never claimed to be, so I cannot speak too much more about the visual art community when it comes to gallery showings or auctions, but I stand behind my opinion that Richard Prince is simply being a weasel by doing what he did with other photographer's works. Hell, I can almost see some semblance of value (and interest) in his Canal Zone project when compared to this Instagram affair.

Call me what you will, but I don't get it. Richard Prince simply doesn't have my respect, and I suspect I don't have his were he to read this. But alas, it is what it is.

[Photos used with permission.]

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Jennifer Kelley's picture

I honestly don't have anything nice to say about Prince after this stunt. I hope the artists whose work was stolen file a class action lawsuit and are awarded every penny he made off the sales.

David Silverman's picture

Richard Prince, I hope someone steals your clothes from your gym locker and your gym bag. I hope when you go to the parking lot in your shorts, you'll find your car stolen. When you reach for your cellphone that will be gone and your watch and keys. When you finally do get home some will have been through your house and all your possession will have vanished leaving only clean spots on the walls and carpets where things had been. I hope your bicycle is stolen. And everything you once considered yours. Everything.

Spy Black's picture

Nah, screw all that. Just hack his bank accounts and drain 'em...

Matt McGarr's picture

I'll be the first to admit I know almost nothing about the legal side of this, but from what I've read on here, it seems the likes of Coulson have a good chance of winning a court case. I wish him well should he pursue the matter through the courts.

Samten Norbù's picture

It is sadly representative of the vacuity of our era !
The fact that it's easy to get an image and loose track of the original author make it worst for us, photographer, as we NEED this recognition to move on. Especially ART photographer ! I don't talk about those who are doing a business with it, but those who, like me, are doing it as some painters would have done in the past !

What did Prince can't be called art, it's just a very lucrative business, witch success has been insured by the other's artist he stole from !
We can't fight against the people who are using our art without knowledge of copyright infringement, but those who are making money, using a loop hole in the law book should be pursued and condemned because they are contributing in creating a very bad habit of thinking that their is no intellectual propriety !

I, as a photographer, must already spend a lot of pedagogic time explaining what does it mean to be an author that those kind of advertising is not good for any of us !

Heath McKinley's picture

While to some Prince may have created art with this latest stunt, where I think he will come undone is that he then sold the "art". The images then stopped being art and became a commercial endeavour. I think it's controversial to do what he did but part of me gets it. But turning a performance or public display into a cash grab reeks of poor taste and holds little artistic merit. I guess we'll have to see if a class action will determine the outcome.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

My guess if he'd actually asked the photographers "hey, I'm doing this social commentary series that I'd like to turn into a collaboration and I'd like to include screenshots from your IG for a cut of the sales" we wouldn't be having this debate now. It's one thing to rip off a photo for public display, it's another to rip off a photo and sell it for $90k, without compensating the artists or even getting their permission. He basically waved his middle finger at the art community.

hugh mobley's picture

there seems to alot of photographers work compromised here, I would look into a class action suit against the sob Prince. It costs alot less to sue someone than to defend it after you are served, this sob could be dragged thru the courts for years!!

Doc Pixel's picture

Depending on the contract that Richard Prince currently has with the Gagosian Gallery, he could very well have sold the rights to the prints (1 of each as far as I know with certificate of authenticity provided by GG) as his agent. The price of each print was determined and/or auctioned by GG and sold to a customer of the gallery.

1) Gagosian could be sued, and possibly be held criminally accountable for dealing in stolen goods.

2) Gargosian also would have to be liable for any penalties and fines, until the time they would decide to sue Richard Prince for selling them stolen goods under the premise of him legally owning the rights to the (stolen) artwork involved.

All of the above needs to come to light in the fact-finding process before any lawsuit could move forward I would think.

@Nino - One thing you forgot to make clear to a number of people here is that copyright infringement is different than physical theft. Nothing is stopping Peter (or any of the other people infringed upon) from selling the exact same Instagram print or any product derived from it.

As an example, Suicide Girls at the urging of it's fans and possibly even your own commentary, has went ahead and started selling the exact same Instagram prints of their photos for $90.00/each. They are doing a print production i.e. commercial business by selling multiple copies, which is naturally perfectly legit for them to do so. The last time I checked they've sold a few hundred already.

Richard Prince/Gagosian Gallery has sold ONE print of each Instagram screen. Most everyone has chimed in that just one is enough to sue against copyright infringement which is true, but it still must be determined by the courts. Morals, ethics, nor personal/mob opinion doesn't come into play with many current laws and statutes. It's either legal, or it's not.

Finally, I think what it all comes down to with a lot of people and certainly from a vast majority of the comments I've read.... and spurred on by the media headlines.... is the price that Gargosian was able to sell the prints to it's buyers and collectors. $90,000 (upped to $100,000 in many headlines) makes for great "1-Percenter Rage" commentary. At this point, we don't even know if the prints were auctioned to a select number of buyers and it was bid up to that amount.... or if GG started at $500,000 and the final going price was bartered down.

In the end, regardless of commentary, emotions, morals or ethics... please PLEASE let this make it's way to a court so we can get the facts and a decision. Another PLEASE for good measure!

Debra Maloney's picture

I'm outraged!! I do hope that Peter Coulson; as someone with some actual clout and legal resources in the industry stands up to Prince and makes an example out of him. As I suspect most of the other victims of these sorts of creative crimes don't have the ability too do so. I will personally pledge $50 towards a class action legal case. I'm not a professional victim in this instance just sick and tired of the blatant disregard for the profession.

Paul Cincotta's picture

No disrespect to Peter, he is a brilliant photographer and the image itself is stunning, but I cant help but wonder who would actually pay 90k for an Instagram? It begs the question whether this is simply an exercise to publicise the web’s photography copyright issues and plug the holes in existing copyright laws via tort rather than waiting for any government to legislate. Nevertheless I wish Peter all the best with this battle.

Eric Mazzone's picture

If someone were to smash Prince's knees in for the theft I would gladly donate to that persons legal defense fund.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

I hear Tonya Harding needs a job...

Eric Mazzone's picture

Hahahahahahaha, I was thrown out of a pizza hut for that lady the same year that happened. Granted it was my own actions, along with my friends, but she and Nancy were the inspiration.

Alice Avenne's picture

He deserves to be someone's prison bitch.

aaronbratkovics's picture

Craziness but I hope Coulson takes legal action. Interested to see how this plays out. If it were my image I would be very upset.

Chip Rauch's picture

I surely have mixed emotions about this issue. While I'm SURE that if it was one of my images that was used, I'd be quite upset, as these artists are. And I agree they SHOULD be upset... But the question remains... where DID Mr. Duchamp get the urinal before scrawling "R.Mutt 1917" on it?

Deacon Blues's picture

It's funny (and aggravating at the same time) how some idiots actually try to excuse this blatant theft. "He was using a screenshot of the Instagram interface, complete with [Prince's] own comment shown"? So? Does anyone really believe people buy those prints for his comments? They obviously buy them because of the photographs, none of which are Prince's work.

Maurice Waters's picture

What I personally don't understand and it might be a financial thing, but if you were buying a $90,000 image in the modern or digital age where the you could "search" the artist, surely someone is coming up with results of the Richard Prince as someone that steals art for profit. Why then wouldn't someone contact the original artist asking for the original production instead of some imitation copy.

Kyle Mellinger's picture

I think the Suicide Girls are doing the best option. Which is sell the same exact print size for $90 of the photo he stole from their model's instagram account.

Gabriel Regalbuto's picture

This guy sold pictures of a Marlborough ads for millions of dollars. A least then he had to do more than press Shift-f4. Garbage.

Alice Avenne's picture

Prince is a piece of crap that deserves to be abused by obese and hairy inmates in a jailcell.

Michael Murphy's picture

I haven't yet had the honor of having any of my photos 'mis-appropriated'' (i.e. Stolen) that I know of but I have had several/multiple 2D works I've done 'stolen' just out and out Stolen. I had many works stolen during class in college and when the girl was caught she tried to demand that I 'prove' she didn't do it and actually "stole'' it off the network when I had let the instructor use them for our interactive multimedia web class that we both were in. They were my 'Garbage' Digital Mosaic works from several years ago based on Hirosage Woodblock Art Prints that I let the teacher to use.

She stated they were too 'feminine' for a man to have created them even though everyone in the class and school knew I had done them and put them on the Network I made her delete my images from her IOMEGA ZIP Drive but apparently she had backup copies. Warning everyone, you may not backup your images and artwork but the thieves and pirates make sure they backup the work they have stolen!

I showed her the evolution of the artwork and she finally admitted she stole it. Unfortunately she graduated a year later and Yes my artwork got her multiple job offers as they were the Main Items in both her print portfolio and digital art portfolio.

I've even seen several of the same Digital Mosaic Art work that she stole as designs on T-Shirts and even worn by an actress on a major television series.

Its flattering to see someone steal 'my Garbage' and put them as the focal point Main Pieces of their Portfolio and on television. Its funny because it was 'my garbage.'

Michael Murphy's picture

I'm sorry but if you did not create it, it is not yours! And you are not entitled to it or to profit from the sale of 'copies' of it! F#cking Douche Bag.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

I have no sympathy for Prince nor I am Warhol fan. But I understand the message of Warhol. He took the stupidity of our society and exposed blatantly in front of us, see if someone start thinking about... Art is a concept, is evolution, the material form that sometimes takes is only the wrapper. Everything can be art because art is the act and the idea behind.
Look "Another Fucking Readymade" from Maurizio Cattelan. He stole the work of another artist and he exhibited it as his own. That is art. That is a fucking statement!

Prince is playing around a gray area and he knows that. If he really wants to make a statement or if he is just a rascal, only he knows. And matters little. The statement is made anyway.

There are people who make a living purchasing old songs rights and suing everyone who uses it.

The logically conclusión for me in this scenario is he has to pay for what is done because if they declare that "fair use" everything can be Fair Use. Fair Use has to be limited to journalism and O.N.G.s. If someone takes a work from another person, don't modify it so the final work is not different from the original in the law established percentage and makes a profit from that, he has to pay. That is business and has to be treated as business.
They have to put a clear frontier between people who want to inform about something or are fighting for a cause and people who want to profit themselves. Is easy, "if you profit from other person work, you pay no matter how much fair use can be involved. The fair use in the case that is present, is done. Is not going to disappear because of the fact that Prince has to give away his profit and pay a fine. And if Prince is legitimate and wanted really to make a statement, he would not have to mind not winning anything.

About the art discussion, I recommended this documentary. Is clever and terribly funny :

And not so funny but good one too: