"Ode to Lichtenstein" is a Liu Dao artwork produced in collaboration with Jean Le Guyader who in early 2010 was writing his doctorate thesis on copyright law in Chinese contemporary art.
Jean Le Guyader writes:
One example of a potential moral problem within copying, plagiarizing and referencing–or alluding to–in contemporary art is the relationship between a 1962 double-panel from the DC Comics publication, “All American Men of War”, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 replica, “Whaam”, and Liu Dao’s 2010 neon installation, “Ode to Lichtenstein”. The question to be asked is whether the law is solely and always involved in a copying conflict.
As will be explained, it is true that the three works in question are different, although in many ways they are extremely similar and in some facets identical. In examining the first two of the mentioned works, Jack Cowart, director of the Lichtenstein’s foundation, notes: "Roy’s work is a dazzler of graphic works and a codification of feelings which have been established by others. The colors, the treatment, the balance and the meaning of the paintings have been modified. There is no exact copy.” Many agree, saying Lichtenstein uses the comic representing an American pilot “destroying” an enemy plane to lead his spectator to question himself about the rule of arms and war in American culture. Contrarily, Stacy Friends, a lawyer specialized in copyright law, says when interrogated about the juridical validity of Lichtenstein’s work: “It is just like sampling, and this is considered `stealing’. The question to be asked is why people who clearly had a right to sue chose not to.”
In this instance, the copyright conflict is only an abstract one. There is no legal battle or financial or moral tension between artists and corporation; there only is academic and intellectual discussion.
In the relationship between Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!” and Liu Dao’s “Ode to Lichtenstein”, there is no mistake that the neon lettering in the latter is a cookie-cutter shape of the famous lettering of the onomatopoeic explosion in both the original comic and Lichtenstein’s version: each capitalized latter leans slightly in front of its successor, and the “H” stands a little higher than the “W” before the following letters slip downwards towards the exclamation mark.
The artistic process of the art collective Liu Dao finds its origins in the conflict. Liu Dao had the idea that if Lichtenstein stole DC comics without being sued, the group could do the same with Lichtenstein’s artwork. But according to many, like Stacy Friends above, even if only the letters are the same, it is still considered stealing. In addition, China recently joined the OMC, meaning that the Berne convention, talking about the artistic right, applies in China. Due to this Convention, the copyright is effective during the life of the author and fifty years after his death; Lichtenstein died in 1997, so the relevant copyright is still going on. Why is Liu Dao so certain no one will be suing and copyright conflict will remain uninvolved? Firstly and less importantly, because the price of Liu Dao’s artwork is not as expensive as Lichtenstein’s artwork, and financial reparations seem hardly worth the effort. But the more likely reason for Liu Dao remaining un-sued is because DC Comics never sued Lichtenstein. There is value in showing respect for the original author, and subsequent authors.
This case shows that law is not always involved in art, even if the stealing is flagrant and the reason for the law not being involved is not concretely apparent.