Rich Pickings

05.29.15 9:15 AM ET

How to Sell Other People’s Instagrams for $100,000 and Get Away With It

There are no legal actions so far arising from the controversy, but was the artist Richard Prince stealing when he used other artists’ Instagram work for his own pieces?

Whether you like it or not, you may be worth $100,000—that is, if Richard Prince stumbles across your Instagram profile.

For the past year, the notoriously known appropriation artist has been cultivating images from the social media platform and turning them into large-scale artworks for art-loving high-spenders.

The canvases, mostly comprised of models, artists, and celebrities, recently sold for more than $100,000.

Prince allegedly used the images without anyone’s permission. It wasn’t until some unsuspecting Instagram user recently stumbled upon the works at Frieze Art Fair in New York City that the awareness fully set in.

And no one is going after their property.

“Figured I might as well post this since everyone is texting me,” Doe Deere captioned in an Instagram of the Instagram prints. “Yes, my portrait is currently displayed at the Frieze Gallery in NYC. Yes, it’s just a screenshot (not a painting) of my original post. No, I did not give my permission and yes, the controversial artist Richard Prince put it up anyway. It’s already sold ($90K I’ve been told) during the VIP preview. No, I’m not gonna go after him. And nope, I have no idea who ended up with it! #lifeisstrange”

The image—Deere dressed as a Pidgin Doll in a stark white shirt and cotton candy blue hair—among many others, was just a recent addition to an already budding collection of unauthorized photos.

Last September, the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles exhibited 38 of these portraits for Prince’s New Portraits exhibition.

“IG [Instagram] is a bedroom magazine,” he wrote of the series on his “BirdTalk” blog. “I can start out with someone I know and then check out who they follow or who’s following them, and the rabbit hole takes on an outer body experience where you suddenly look at the clock and it’s three in the morning. I end up on people’s grids that are so far removed from where I began, it feels psychedelic.”

The project started out as a dip into a completely new contemporary art moment for the artist, adding “another wrinkle to his modern meta-take on sex, art and appropriation,” according to Quartz.

Prince innocently began by posting super-meta photos-of-a-photo-of-a-photo without much backlash.

As for the exhibition last September, ArtNews called Prince “painfully removed from the youth culture in which he’s participating,” while New York Magazine’s resident art critic Jerry Saltz called it “genius trolling.”

It’s something Prince has been doing for years. His most famous body of work—a series known as “Cowboys”—was taken from cigarette advertisements.

Each work featured appropriations of the famous Marlboro Man who once fronted the tobacco giant. He also slapped his name on the cover of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and sold the new editions as his own.

However, in 2008, someone finally went after the artist.

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Photographer Patrick Cariou formally sued Prince for using some 25 images from his book, Yes, Rasta, for Prince’s “Canal Zone” series without his permission.

Prince was forced to prove that he “transformed” the images he took from Cariou into a new work of art in order to fall under the ‘fair use’ laws of copyright infringement.

“Here, you’ve got an appropriation artist whose whole reputation is from taking images that he finds interesting and turning them into art,” Ian Ballon, an Internet copyright litigator with Greenberg Traurig, LLP, told The Daily Beast. “But courts evaluate ‘fair use’ based on a multi-part balancing test and, if you change the facts just a little bit, something that looks very similar could actually be a ‘fair use.’”

It typically boils down to a judgment call. In the “Canal Zone” works, Prince painted faces and added color props such as guitars to Cariou’s images of Jamaicans who follow Rastafarian culture.

After five years of court cases and appeals, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that 20 of the images were indeed “transformative” and the landmark case allowed Prince to keep his pieces intact.

While Prince was not available for comment about the Instagram controversy, his addition to each image consists of being the last comment in the frame.

Quotes like “Enjoyed the ride today. Lets do it again. Richard,” appeared under an image of singer Sky Ferriera in a car. “T-Shirt bathing suit! Nice. Let’s hook up next week. Lunch, Smiles. R,” was posted to an image of Pamela Anderson lying on the beach.

via Instagram

“I’ll be frank with you. We all know the art market isn’t based on originality,” Miller Rodriguez (@prettypukefool), a photographer whose image of a half-naked woman was used by Prince, told The Daily Beast. “Contemporary art is about doing whatever you want and congrats to him for making so much money … There’s no legal action to take because he appropriated the work and redefined its meaning. I don’t know why it’s so fucking hard for people to get! It’s mostly idiots and basic people who don’t understand that the concept is genius.”

Karley Sciortino (@karleyslutever), who runs the blog Slutever and was also featured in the show last September, agreed.

“I thought it was really cool. I’ve always been a huge fan of Richard Prince’s work,” she told The Daily Beast. “He’s made his career doing exactly this—playing and being provocative with the idea of ownership and copyright and appropriation. I just think it’s really telling that the only people who are ‘offended’ by these artworks are people that want money.”

Selena Mooney, who founded the burlesque group Suicide Girls (@suicidegirls) in 2001, is one of the victims who have pushed back at Prince for using their photos.

Instead of taking legal action, the group is offering their own life-size version of the prints for $90 a piece.

“The only thing that sucks worse than copyright infringement is lawyers and being in court all day,” Mooney told The Daily Beast as to why they were choosing to forgo a formal suit. “The Internet is about the democratization of media and for him to take the images from people and sell them for such an exorbitant amount of money, it really cuts against the grain of everything that the Internet is about. So we wanted to create images that people could afford.”

All profits from the works will be donated to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world.

“My first reaction was, ‘This sucks,’” Mooney said. “Here’s some old dude who doesn’t understand why people find it offensive to steal their Instagram photos. He doesn’t really use Instagram, so he thinks he’s being clever and maybe he’s starting a discussion, but the individuals within the images can’t even imagine paying $90,000 for anything other than a house and it’s hurtful. Instagram is really personal, it’s an expression of our identity, and to have an old dude steal our images and get paid such a significant fee for them really hurt.”

“We all steal and use other people’s images all the time,” Sciortino said. “And, as someone who runs a website, I can say that. I illustrate my writings with images by other people without asking. Of course, I credit them and you could say that I’m not making $100,000, but I am making some money from my blog. It’s just the world we live in.”

“Theoretically anyone can take anything that’s on the Internet,” Ballon said. “But people frequently confuse the concept of things being freely available with them being free to use.”

Context is key. “Social media is a culture of sharing, but there’s a difference between personal sharing and commercial sharing,” Ballon said. “It’s one thing to re-post someone else’s post on social media,” like Sciortino does on her blog, “but it’s another to put it on canvas and charge $90,000.”

Until someone steps up, Prince can continue to redefine the method of appropriation all he wants.

“People in the Instagram community own their photos, period,” a spokesperson for Instagram told The Daily Beast. “On the platform, if someone feels that their copyright has been violated, they can report it to us and we will take appropriate action. Off the platform, content owners can enforce their legal rights.”

Since the appropriated images are not physically on Instagram, they are unable to interfere. And as of Wednesday night, most all of the images on Prince’s Instagram page had been removed.

There was only one surprising starlet. An image-of-an-image-of-Taylor Swift casually reclining on a couch in a metallic gold skirt was the only presence left of his collection of prints.

via Instagram

“Come on people smile on your brother everybody get together try and love one another,” Prince commented on Swift’s photo.

Swift’s team did not immediately return our request for comment, but this final image was taken down soon after we inquired. With Prince’s Instagram feed left hauntingly empty, we can only imagine Swift’s crack team of secret T.A.S. Agents, who aggressively protects her brand, might have sent a cease-and-desist.

Will anyone else?