Robert Indiana, 86 this year, is an American artist most well known for his iconic pop art LOVE sculptures. He’s less well-known for losing the copyright in his work by failing to properly register it.
The artist, born Robert Clark, changed his last name to Indiana (his home state) when he moved to New York in the 1950s. Indiana was part of the art scene that included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol. In the early 1960s, Indiana started using the word LOVEin his work. In 1965, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art commissioned Indiana to design a Christmas card. The result was LOVE, a work of art that started as a popular holiday card, became an emblem of the 60s, and is likely the most widely reproduced and recognized work of its time.
Unfortunately, Indiana did not attach copyright notice to the work when it was published, a requisite for copyright protection under the Copyright Act of 1909, the law in effect at the time. The result was that the work fell into the public domain, and was reproduced without the permission of or payment to the artist.
“The great disappointment” according to Indiana “was that I didn’t know enough about copyright, and my work wasn’t properly copyrighted. So I had all these rip-offs, and everybody presumed I was getting terribly wealthy because LOVE was popping up all over the world. That happened very quickly. And painfully.”
When the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect, Indiana was able to reclaim his rights to some degree. But it was too late – many in the art world had rejected him as a commercial artist.
Indiana went on to do great work, and was celebrated with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum last year entitled “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love.” LOVE will be his legacy, but his experience will be a cautionary tale: though copyright notice is no longer a requirement under the Copyright Act, artists (and other copyright owners) should implement copyright registration programs, a requisite for recovering statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in infringement actions.