Thinly Veiled: Lawsuit Over Steamy Rihanna Video Sparks Debate On Copycat Culture

Rihanna's new video is the target of a lawsuit from photographer David LaChapelle. i i

Rihanna's new video is the target of a lawsuit from photographer David LaChapelle. YouTube hide caption

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Rihanna's new video is the target of a lawsuit from photographer David LaChapelle.

Rihanna's new video is the target of a lawsuit from photographer David LaChapelle.

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Content advisory: The links and video in this story contain some overt sexual content; do not continue if you don't care to see Rihanna in various stages of undress.

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Fashion photographer David LaChapelle is known for staging photo shoots with lots of bright colors, outrageous costumes, and sexy, surreal images. The video for Rihanna's new single, "S&M," has all three — and it looked so familiar to LaChapelle that he's filed a million dollar lawsuit against the singer, her record label, the video's director and production company for copyright infringement.

When compared side-by-side, the video does bear striking similarities to the photos LaChapelle claims were plagiarized. In once scene, Rihanna lies semi-nude on a table, surrounded by reporters in clown wigs. The corresponding LaChapelle photo depicts a woman lying in a hospital bed, also half-naked and also surrounded by clowns in business attire.

In his complaint against Rihanna, LaChapelle alleges, "Defendants are wrongly implying to the public that plaintiff was involved in the creation of the Music Video or that plaintiff has endorsed, approved or otherwise consented to its creation."

The lines between copycat art, homage to a previous artist's work, and work that merely explores a similar idea can be hard to draw, but they're essential to the notion of an artist protecting their intellectual property. Particularly when intellectual property and recontextualization are at the heart of the art in question. Take video artist Christian Marclay for example. In 2007, he discovered that an advertisement for a new Apple product, the iPhone, used a concept similar to the one he explored in a widely seen piece he created in 1995 called "Telephones." In both videos, rapid cuts show Hollywood actors from different eras answering the phone.

As he told The New York Times in 2008 (attribution rules apply to journalism, too), Marclay's suspicions that Apple had copied his work were made even stronger by the fact that the company, he says, had earlier approached his gallery about using the piece in an advertisement.

According to the Times, Marclay decided not to file suit against the smartphone maker. Partly because of Apple's size and resources, but also because he himself had appropriated video from old films without the consent of their copyright holders.

LaChapelle's case against Rihanna might be complicated by the fact that music videos have always borrowed images: Madonna's video for "Material Girl" looked an awful lot like Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. But according to Jason King, an NYU Professor and artistic director of the school's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, digital culture has made the boundaries between borrowing and theft hard to enforce.

"There's a kind of ubiquity of unsourced images out there," says King. In what he calls the "Flickr era," after the oft-pilfered image hosting website, artists can now "borrow images, in a kind of grab bag aesthetic, from anywhere they want."

King says this kind of cultural feedback is just the way pop stars operate. As he points out, Rihanna's 2007 single "Don't Stop the Music" borrowed heavily from Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Starting Somethin'." Jackson's song was itself a quotation of one by the Cameroonian jazz artist Manu Dibango – who was in turn riffing on 1960s-era James Brown funk.

But King maintains that it's not enough just to imitate – any piece of borrowed art should improve on its source in some way. "There's a sort of unspoken idea in the making of popular culture," says King, "that if you're going to copy something, at least the copy should zig where the original zags."

That's a distinction LaChapelle himself should know well. As a 1998 profile of the photographer in Advertising Age's Creativity pointed out, when he made the jump to video from still photography, his "directorial debut was a parody of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? For MTV's Raw, starring grotesque Madonna and Courtney Love impersonators." LaChapelle also directed a series of Sprite commercials that riff on Wrigley's famous Doublemint Twins.

It isn't the first time LaChapelle has complained about a musician taking inspiration from his work, either. In that same Advertising Age interview, he lashed out against Meredith Brooks, who called LaChapelle to tell him his photography had inspired her video for the song "B****":

"I was like, what the f***?! That's my picture! That's the David Duchovny picture from The Face in '95! It's like, you are a b****, why didn't you call me to direct it?

"He breaks into a song and dance based on 'B****,' then stops to fume again. 'There is this whole thing about plagiarism when it comes to the verbal,' he seethes. 'But with the visual everybody thinks that plagiarism doesn't exist. It exists!"

Whether Rihanna's video crosses the line from remix to plaigiarism remains open for debate. In the meantime, King says, LaChapelle may just be reminding the world that his pictures exist, and that he came up with them first.

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