Laughing or crying at Le Corbusier: Every action has consequences

Posted by Mathias Klang on September 9, 2014
Screen capture from The Big Lebowski

Screen capture from The Big Lebowski

Le Corbusier is one of those names: many have heard of him but few know why. (This is based on a totally unscientific poll I took at a party. It reflects the poor quality of knowledge among my chosen friends, and bad science on my part to generalize it in this way) Anyway, we vaguely associate him with something to do with design and architecture.

If we were to ignore his impact on a generation of architects and urban planners, we can also turn to the furniture line created by himself and his designers and introduced in the 1920s and 1930s. Gorgeous creations of chrome tubes and leather cushions that have been featured in magazines and films for decades, usually signifying luxury or the future but not always. Here is an example of one of his chairs in The Big Lebowski (Ethan Coen, 1998).

 

For designers, hipsters, and furniture nerds this is all great. But for us copyright geeks, it takes a lot longer before it all begins to get interesting. Le Corbusier died in 1965, but naturally his designs and thoughts are still influential several decades on. We think differently about design because of him. This is all well and good.

The part that makes it difficult to know whether to laugh or cry is the news that Le Corbusier’s heirs (and the holders of his copyright today), after discovering that some of their relative’s work was included in Getty Images enormous photo collection, have sued Getty for making the images available online. The copyright holders won the case: Fondation Le Corbusier v. Getty Images (Paris Court of Appeals, Pole 5, 2nd chamber June 13, 2014). Read more about it over at The 1709 Blog.

Copyright is important and the images involved in the case were not pictures of other things with some furniture in the background. They were clearly identifiable as Le Corbusier, and in the foreground. Additionally the photos did not make any reference to Le Corbusier as having anything to do with the chairs!

So the Le Corbusier family gained some money and can argue that they defended the family honor. But to what expense? Since Getty Images has 80000 images online, will they have to act in some way to prevent other families eager to profit from the remains of their dead ancestors?

Will cases like this scare other archives away from digitizing images and making them available online? The aftereffects of this sort of thing has the potential to drag us back from the cultural bonanza of online archives. Today we go online and find what we want – should the relatives of dead designers have the power to prevent this?

Does sharing the same DNA as a creator make you well suited to decide the fate of her creations?