Do I Own the Legal Rights?

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In my last post, I talked about how images from mass media often determine, rather than merely describe, our experience of the world.  The group of artists that were involved in the Pictures Generation, were also interrogating appropriation, defined as taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.  It got me thinking. In a divorce, who owns the rights to the wedding photos?  How about the rights to the image of the dissolution agreement itself?

In a world that constantly shares images and information, with or without the right to do so, I thought it was important to investigate my ability to appropriate my own property, or is it co-owned property, for as everyone knows, getting divorced is really about the division of property, you are left to figure our your emotions on your own.

As this is an art project, and I have already allowed 17 artists to view my dissolution agreement without any names, other than mine, and no monetary figures, it crossed my mind when my ex-husband expressed his displeasure with this project that I might want to look into my rights to the source material.  I had explained how I had protected the sensitive information, but in his opinion it was all sensitive, even though I informed him that our agreement is in the public record and that anyone can request to see our agreement with all of the facts and figures. So, since we both crafted this agreement with the help of a mediator, and since we both paid for our wedding photos and are in them, can I reproduce our photos and our agreement, though altered to protect the innocent, for my art project?

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I asked a lawyer friend about this.  She is also divorced and had a much more complicated divorce than I had so I felt she would be a good place to start.  After doing some research, she discovered that there is nothing on the subject of who owns the right to publish wedding photos in art or otherwise between spouses.  Absent anything to the contrary, I have equal rights with my ex-husband to publish the photos as I wish. The same goes with the dissolution agreement. As long as there is no confidentiality agreement, and there wasn’t, and especially if it is a court document, which means it is in the public record anyway, I have the right to publish the document.

I then asked an artist who is doing extensive research into the subject of appropriation and intellectual property rights.  According to him, since the divorce papers were “co-authored” I should be able to use them.  As for the photos, the photographer would probably be considered to have made “work for hire” and thus, whoever did the hiring, would own the rights. Surely, no wedding photographer would chase a woman who used pictures from her own wedding in her art!  He felt that the underlying question is whether my ex-husband would have a problem with his personal life being put on display as art but that doesn’t mean that my ex-husband has legal recourse. He felt that since we both share rights in whatever we produced together, neither one of us needed permission from the other to use/show the documents unless it was specifically mentioned in the dissolution agreement.

The point of this project is not the nitty-gritty details of my divorce, nor is it to air dirty laundry; it is to examine the overall idea of agreements that legislate bodies and the relationship between them. Therefore, I do believe I have been discreet in my use of “our” document and any images I may use in the final objects produced for this project.  But this raises another question, what does this have to do with art anyway?

It is my personal belief that an artist’s job is to push the boundaries of what we find intrusive and offensive.  This often means looking at things we take for granted as “normal” to uncover the politics within these beliefs.

A lot is made of marriage and coupling, however divorce is swept under the rug unless it is between celebrities, and even then, we only hear about the dirty laundry and the settlement amount.  The details are said to be private.  Why?  Why should a divorce be more private than the marriage?

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